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Last week, as I was clicking through the various gallery listings and websites for something to catch my eye, I chanced upon a summer group exhibition at Lehmann Maupin’s Chrystie Street venue. One of the installation shots showed a flat, white marble relief sculpture by Maya Lin; I made a mental note of it and kept going.
I didn’t think of the sculpture again until Wednesday, after reading two items in the newspaper. The first reported on the Obama administration’s abrupt decision to postpone the mandate requiring large employers to provide coverage for their work force (“Republicans’ gleeful reactions made clear that they would not cease to make repeal of Obamacare a campaign issue for the third straight election cycle”).
The second, an editorial, was about a new display at the New York Public Library where “you can see drafts of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights when they were still works in progress.”
The most significant change in the final draft of the Declaration of Independence concerned Thomas Jefferson’s condemnation of slavery:
King George III, Jefferson wrote, “has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation hither.” To appease delegates from Georgia and South Carolina, the denunciation was excised.
That reactionary politicians, in league with vested interests, have been holding back progress since the founding of the country is something we’ve always known, but to read the language that Jefferson, himself a slaveholder, actually wrote, and to imagine the supreme callousness it took to demand its deletion, comes as a shock.
The health care setback and the redacted Declaration brought Maya Lin’s sculpture to mind, because I remembered it as a fragmented map of the Unite States.
Given Lin’s status as the designer of the nation’s most powerful modern monument, one that reaches beyond its historical context to endow two simple granite walls with Homeric grandeur, an image of the United States in pieces, if I remembered it correctly, would carry a very different, and a far more funereal, significance than someone else doing exactly the same thing.
In a catalogue essay for a show I organized in 1997, I wrote this about Lin’s achievement:
Much is made of the power of art to heal and change, but in reality, such expectations are rarely more than empty dreams. One exception, of course, is the work of Maya Lin. Her Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1980) has been central to the mending of our nation’s wounds after the most divisive conflict since the Civil War.
If Maya Lin, of all people, has given up, what then?
The funny thing is that I didn’t remember the image correctly. I rechecked the website and visited the gallery the same day, discovering that the sculpture was actually of a melting ice floe.
Titled “Disappearing Bodies of Water: Arctic Ice” (2013) and carved out of Vermont Danby marble, as a work of art it comes off as too literal and too slick — problems that have plagued Lin’s work for decades.
Of course, a fragmented map of the U.S. would have been just as literal, and I probably would have reacted to it, if it indeed existed, no more positively than I did to the ice floe.
Conceptually, however, there isn’t much difference between my mental fabrication of a Maya Lin sculpture and the actual object. The catastrophe of global warming is as much the result of reactionary power plays and short-term economic thinking as the governmental dysfunction that’s hobbling the United States. And there’s no getting out of it, even with the reelection of putatively the most progressive president since the 1960s.
With worldwide entropy settling in for the long haul (Wednesday was also the day of the military coup in Egypt), is it any wonder that artistic visions have become desultory and disjointed as well?
Perhaps that’s my main issue with Lin’s sculpture: it addresses the consequences of political dereliction and gridlock with a lustrous, finely fabricated slab of stone (it comes in an edition of three), signifying permanence and traditional artistic values, rather than through a means that reflects the soul-deadening sources of the problem.
Although I loathe the art of Thomas Hirschhorn, in this instance his dismal Xeroxes, cardboard scraps and packing tape might be more appropriate to the subject.
Lin forswore memorial commissions years ago in order to escape pigeonholing, but what she has effectively made here is a memorial to the fate of the planet. Historically, to mourn in marble is to recognize that what is lost is truly lost. It is the definitive measure of hopelessness, which I doubt is what Lin meant to create.
My discomfort with the marble is its immutability, implying — unintentionally — that things will remain as they are, that entrenched power interests will stay entrenched and we will just have to get used to it.
Although it is unfair to put it in these terms, “Disappearing Bodies of Water: Arctic Ice” can be viewed as an expression of realpolitik, which deals with the world as it is rather than as it should be, thereby leaving existing structures in place.
Realpolitik, however, ignores the hidden currents filtering beneath its granite pedestal, and our current state of entropy proves that, for good or ill, nothing is carved in stone. Sinkholes happen, monuments collapse, and history, as Thomas Jefferson knew, can change in an instant.
Single Point Perspective is an occasional series from Hyperallergic Weekend that features texts about single works of art and the currents they ride on.
“Disappearing Bodies of Water: Arctic Ice” (2013) is on view as part of Summer Group Show at Lehmann Maupin Gallery (201 Chrystie Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan), which also features works by Mary Corse and Teresita Fernández. The exhibition continues through August 16.
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