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Lady Liberty at the Museum

As I was walking through the museum the other day, I noted the fact that the Art Institute has not one, but two artworks featuring the Statue of Liberty.

The Statue of Liberty—playing a starring role int he artist's 2009 film Static—immediately confronts you as you enter Steve McQueen. The film destabilizes a nationally recognized symbol whose meanings of liberty and freedom are assuredly entrenched in the popular imagination. In the summer of 2009, the artist visited Ellis Island on a family vacation. There, he says, the concept came to him in an instant. He decided that he wanted to “spin this thing around,” to set her “offkilter.” Although securing permission to do so was no easy task, McQueen made the film orbiting the statue in a helicopter. While the subject itself is immobile, McQueen’s highly unstable camera, combined with jarring jump cuts, creates a remarkable effect: the statue itself seems to lift off its base. First the colossus seems to float and then to fly against the backdrop of lower Manhattan and its surrounds. The statue soars most majestically during several passages when the sound fades to near silence.

Danh Vo, on the other hand, presents just portions of the Statue of Liberty. The artist is in the midst of a long-term project reconstructing the Statue of Liberty on a 1:1 scale. But the objective of We the People, however, is not to erect another statue in its totality but to reconstruct its individual elements and disperse them. The scattered fragments emphasize the abstract nature of freedom, while the recreation of only the statue’s thin copper skin reveals the material and conceptual fragility of the monument, contrary to the original’s bold proclamations of stability and impermeability. The installation by Vo not only works against the mythical position of the statue but recalls the statue’s first public appearances: prior to its full assembly in New York in 1886, the torch-wielding hand was displayed in Philadelphia at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, while the head was shown at the Paris Exposition of 1878.

Ironically, neither Vo nor McQueen were born in the United States, but both are clearly inspired by the significance of cultural symbols.

Steve McQueen is open through January 6 and We the People is open through April 7.

Image Credit: Installation shot of Danh Vo's We the People (detail) in the Pritzker Garden.