Visitors to New York’s Jim Kempner Fine Art in West Chelsea this past weekend were quite literally confronted with truth.
The word was there in the courtyard, spelled in capital letters—a 3,000-pound sculpture of the word, bolded and made entirely of solid ice. At the time of installation, it was about four feet high, five feet long, and seven inches thick, with a light in its base that filtered through the letters, and reflected dully below their honeycombed surfaces.
Then, on Monday morning, TRUTH melted.
The sculpture was originally installed Saturday—the first anniversary of President Trump’s inauguration—by the artists Nora Ligorano and Marshall Reese as part of an international “Art Action Day.”
Officially titled "Truth Be Told," it is the most recent in a series of sculptures called Melted Away, which began in 2006, before Presidents Trump and Obama, and back in what feels like the Bronze Age of the Bush administration.
Since then, they’ve melted words such as “DEMOCRACY,” “THE FUTURE,” “MIDDLE CLASS,” and “THE AMERICAN DREAM,” in both private and public spaces, and even outside of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. They livestream the whole process, and occasionally also conduct interviews with passersby.
Based in Brooklyn, Ligorano and Reese have collaborated since the early 1980s, and are no strangers to political art.
In 2004, for example, they made Line Up, a series of mugshots doctored to include the likenesses of major players from the Bush administration, which were not exactly received lightly when they were exhibited at the New York Public Library in 2007.
Their oeuvre also includes a set of snow globes with each of the seven deadly sins inside, and a “fiber optic tapestry,” which culls information from the internet and transforms it into an illuminated textile. On their website, they write that “their pursuit is an ongoing investigation into the impact of technology on culture and the associations and meanings that the media brings to images, language and speech in politics.”
“I think that now is the time for art activism,” Reese told the Daily Beast. Ligorano adds, “it’s really hard to make art right now… There’s a lot of things coming out that I don’t necessarily think are so effective, but artists are looking deeper, and pulling up things with their work that are talking about questions of immigration and race. Now it’s the strongest it’s ever been.”
The term “art activism” is a loaded one. Art is always political, a product of and reaction to the circumstances in which it is made.
Trump’s accession to power, however, has been the cause of much angst in the art world. There has been hand-wringing over whether art can effectively cause change without falling trap to its inflated market, conflicts of interest, or being considered decorative sideshow. “Art activism” or “activist art” are those works that attempt to do so by announcing their intentions explicitly, wearing their bleeding political hearts on their sleeves.
Truth Be Told is not exactly subtle. It sacrifices the ambiguity in art normally misinterpreted as taste, in exchange for emphatic communication. Drastic times, after all, call for drastic measures: some would argue it’s simply a commensurate response to a president inarguably fond of bombast.
In these extreme times artists have responded in kind, such as Jonathan Horowitz’s apocalyptic portrait of the president, Does She Have a Good Body? No. Does She Have a Fat Ass? Absolutely., Illma Gore’s rather unflattering (NSFW) depiction, Make America Great Again, and even street artist Hanksy’s Dump Trump mural.
The first superimposes a nuclear sky above an image of Trump on a golf course, the second grants the president a microscopic “member,” and the third transforms him into a literal piece of shit. They don’t need explaining: the vitriol is rarely subdued.
Ligorano and Reese’s Melted Away sculptures may not be so explicit, but they nevertheless seethe with quiet indignation and lament. They’re “temporary monuments,” as the artists like to say, and they’re also public memorials.
“I look at all these ice sculptures as a specific series of monuments to what’s happened in the first decade of the 21st century,” says Reese, listing the words that the pair have melted. “First, DEMOCRACY’s broken, then the ECONOMY falls apart, then the MIDDLE CLASS disappears, and THE AMERICAN DREAM shatters.”