A whole new meaning for America's beacon of freedom
by Lori Waxman. Chicago Tribune, Arts & Entertainment (A&E) October 24, 2012.
In a hushed gallery of the Oriental Institute, a colossal stone lamassu gazes down at a piece of the Statue of Liberty with all the knowingness that comes from having seen his empire crumble some 21/2 millennia ago. The 16-foot-tall, human-headed winged bull once guarded the entrance to the throne room of the Assyrian King Sargon II. The guardian was found in fragments in 1929 and reassembled in the Hyde Park museum for safekeeping.
Liberty is here because her empire, too, has fallen, though far more recently. She is just a fragment of her former glorious self, but it is a facial fragment and the one eye that remains reveals all the shell shock of new trauma. One can only guess at the political or military or climatological disaster that ended her reign, and left her in pieces for cultural historians to pick up and preserve.
This is mostly just a story. It seemed to construct itself as I stood between the two monumental objects it describes, which are indeed engaged in mournful congress at the University of Chicago's museum of the ancient Near East. The lamassu is part of the institute's permanent collection, but his distraught companion, Liberty, is one of approximately 400 pieces that make up a provocative, ambitious artwork by Danh Vo.
Vo, who was born in Vietnam in 1975 and fled the country by boat with his parents when he was 4, was raised in Denmark and currently lives in Berlin. His project, begun in 2010 with a completion date set for 2013, would be hubristic if it weren't so obviously a critique of hubris itself. It might in fact be both.
"We the People (detail)" is a full-size copper replica of the 151-foot-tall Statue of Liberty, hammered in the same repousse technique that Frederic Auguste Bartholdi used on the original. Both statues were shipped in sections from their site of production to their places of display, but Vo's is never going to be reassembled into a whole.
His Liberty remains in pieces, scattered throughout the world, a finger here, a dress fold there. (There are a lot of dress folds, naturally.) They are landing temporarily in art spaces in Copenhagen, Denmark; Kassel, Germany; Paris; Barcelona, Spain; Bangkok; Ghent, Belgium; and Shenzhen, China. In the United States, some pieces have been in New York, and now eight are here in Chicago, on display at the Art Institute of Chicago and across the University of Chicago campus. (A disappointingly obscure solo show at the Renaissance Society accompanies them.)
In the south courtyard of the Booth School of Business, Vo's square swatch of Liberty's gown is a forgotten ruin. Leaning up against the concrete exterior of the school amid a simple flower bed, the 5-foot-tall copper sheet goes almost entirely unnoticed and unrecognized. (Save for some too-helpful signage.) How did it get there? Perhaps a tsunami struck New York Harbor, shattering Liberty into pieces that were then blown across the country on the winds of a massive tornado. The same storm would explain how half a dozen stones found themselves suspended high up in the branches of a nearby tree, by the Italian sculptor Giuseppe Penone.
At the Art Institute, five random bits of Liberty lie about the Pritzker Garden, soon to be moved upstairs to the Bluhm Family Terrace. Seen from the front, with the elegant white columns of Rem Koolhaus' Modern Wing rising around them and the even more elegant, whiter arc of Ellsworth Kelly's sun setting over them, Vo's shiny copper fragments could be the near-future analogue to the Greek and Roman statuary preserved inside. Fallen leaves become sediment in the pools of water collected in the folds, and Vo's sculptures rest here as casually as do the ancient scraps that fill the courtyards of archaeological museums around the world.
Except that Greek and Roman figures and reliefs were by and large carved of solid marble. Circling Vo's fragments reveals Liberty to be just a shell. Her backside, her insides are a dingy mess of spatters and drips held together with slipshod welds and bent piping. This does not look like art, it does not look like a monument, it does not even look like parts of a monument. It looks like something slapped together in a developing-world vehicle shop. Which actually isn't so far from the truth. Vo outsourced "We the People (detail)" to a metal workshop in Shanghai.
The original Statue of Liberty is just 0.09 inches thick, and it was presented in parts, too, at first. But showing the Statue of Liberty's torch arm at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition or her bust at the 1878 Paris World Fair is about as different from Vo's roving, fragmentary displays as the world of 1886 is from the world of 2012. That sculpture was a monument to freedom and independence, given by an old French country to a young American one. These figures present U.S.-style democracy darkly in a global world of uprising and repression, where capital moves product from wherever it can be made most cheaply to wherever it is most desired.
Those fragments promised a whole, both artistic and political. These signal every kind of dissolution.
"Danh Vo: We the People (detail)" runs through April 17, 2013, at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave., and through Dec. 16 at various venues on the University of Chicago campus, including the Oriental Institute, 1155 E. 58th St. A companion solo exhibition, "Danh Vo: Uterus" runs through Dec. 16 at the Renaissance Society. For information, visit artic.edu and renaissancesociety.org.
Lori Waxman is a special contributor to the Chicago Tribune, and an instructor at the Art Institute of Chicago.
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A whole new meaning for America's beacon of freedom