Glenn Ligon: AMERICA


of an Exhibition

by Kristi Tremblay

Published on March 28, 2011, Modified on March 31, 2011

  • Description:

    By happenstance, I was introduced to “Glenn Ligon: America”. Stepping off the elevator, I was immediately met with the striking image of many hands reaching up into darkness. There was an energy reflected in the photographic image as the hands are caught in a moment of shared experience. Oddly enough I did not feel a need to know to what event the people photographed were involved. The anonymity of the people and place provided a stirring look into the limits of imagery to represent the complexities of an individual person. The hands, all unique in their gesture, size, and color, represent people I do not know. Yet I am intrigued by the image as a record of history. The medium of silkscreen ink on canvas evokes reference to the reproduction process. I began to think, how much do we really know about history when we look at an image? Ligon employs a range of mediums to illustrate the disparity between the world as it is and how we see it.

    Turning into the next gallery, I was meet with “America”. Three seemingly comparable neon signs with the word “America” were positioned singularly on separate walls at the same height. Electrical cable lines hung downward into two batteries. The lettering, perhaps a foot high, was not particularly bold in font, nor were the neon lights that thrilling. However, the subtlety of the installation made the experience of sitting in that large space personal. When entering, one’s eye travels to the “America” that is in harmony. The black lettering outlines the off-white light. I believe that this represents the America we would like to attribute to today. However, our quickness to pronounce success in terms of racial tolerance is extremely problematic. To the left is the white “America”. The striking white light prevents any black outline to be seen. There is an arrogance to this light, which shines using the most energy. Across the room is the black “America”, in which no light radiates. The juxtaposition of having batteries and connected cables but no light is a powerful image for the plight of a race. So many interpretations are possible for this piece that the level of effectiveness is boundless. The message is one of caution and awareness to see what has been neglected.

    Although the first pieces did not require prompting in terms of wall texts or audio guides, I believe that many of the other works did. For example, Ligon incorporates text from James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village”, in a series of prints. The text offers insight into the personal connection Ligon felt towards Baldwin’s account. Being the only black man in Switzerland, Baldwin would inspire fear and curiosity in the people. The wall text explains that “Stranger in the Village” provides a window into understanding Ligon’s art. Ligon added charcoal to the canvas in an effort to reflect the weight and gravity of Baldwin’s tone. “[I want to] make language into a physical thing, something that has real weight and force to it.” The artist’s personal connection to historical imagery and text is essential to understanding these pieces in a completely unique way and cannot be overlooked.

    Moreover, the amount of text throughout the exhibition is modest and positioned selectively. Viewers have the choice in this regard to view the text as they see fit. Text offered great insight into the charcoal canvas series, and was also an essential component to another installation entitled “To Disembark”. Ligon juxtaposes the story and images evoked by the autobiographical account of Henry “Box” Brown, a slave who attempted to escape captivity by mailing himself in a 3 × 2 box in 1849. A mix of sound and visual imagery makes this space a potential sensory nightmare. Four crates are positioned on the floor, each projecting a different soundtrack. Three consist of songs: Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” KRS’s “One Anthem” and “Sound of Da Police”. The last crate is an audio recording of Brown’s account. I found this to be of great interest, however, I had a difficult time hearing the account from the other songs and people. Nor was it comfortable to lean down to try and listen. I was the only one who seemed to attempt to hear the recordings. Whether there was no interest in listening or whether visitors were not aware of what was playing from each of the crates is unclear, but I did not believe that the intended meaning was being properly comprehended. Visitor’s seemed in a daze, unsure what to focus on.

    Nevertheless, the visitors I spoke to and observed in “America” were in complete revelation. Experiencing an awakening from how they have been persuaded to see the world towards a kind of enlightenment. Reactions ranged from engrossed silence, verbal enthusiasm and stunned stillness. Visitors, ranging in age, race, and background, were talking about the exhibition in ground breaking terms. There was a cohesive appreciation for Ligon’s ability to stimulate a new world view. This exhibit, however, is not intended for the feeble spirit. The play on words, graphic images, and installations all warrant an educated awareness from the audience to seek the uncomfortable questions. The effectiveness of America was deeply felt and a must-see for those seeking a truly thought-provoking experience.

Log in to post a response.