A monumental exhibit at Mass MoCA that throws questions in the air
NORTH ADAMS — Throughout time, mankind has built memorials to itself — monumental works of marble, stone, bronze and gold that are meant to last forever. Whether tributes or grave markers, they are meant to be permanent reminders that we were here.
But time has a way of making the permanent impermanent. Our monuments succumb to the elements, fade from memory and topple over during political unrest.
Sculptor Ledelle Moe's monolithic concrete statues, fallen and scarred, are a memorial to the contradictions that make up the collective human experience: strength and vulnerability, the individual and the collective, a sense of place and displacement, permanence and impermanence, grief and hope.
"These things we build — an attempt to do something permanent in the relentless impermanence in life — by making them literally hollow and fragile [Moe] is underscoring the idea that those things, that are now ruins, were supposed to be there forever, marking our time," said Susan Cross, curator of visual arts at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art where the exhibit, "Ledelle Moe: When," opened on Saturday, Dec. 14.
There, in Building 5, Moe's concrete forms question the very purpose of monumental works, the role they play, in the past and present, and who they are for.
She began exploring that concept in 2005, when she first began her ongoing series, "Memorial (Collapse)." The four giant heads, all faces of victims of violence in her native South Africa, lay on their sides in peaceful repose. Constructed of cement and wire mesh, the heads, which weigh about 2,000 pounds each, are hollow and worn. There is a sense of fragility.
They began with a single photo of a young man who was killed in Liberia during the Charles Taylor conflict.
"It really got under my skin and I thought, I had to draw this man's portrait. It led to a larger portrait, which never really referenced him, but it was more dealing with the unknown fallout from violent conflicts, in my own clumsy, personal way — the weight and the gravity and the enormity of it, but also the anonymity of it," Moe said during an interview at the museum. "That was the start of it. The more recent return to it, for this show, is more specific to South African conflicts, of unnecessary killings and brutal murders. They're memorials to something falling apart, around the ambiguity to what in heaven's name that is because there are so many conflicting forces. But the specificity of this is, this is a human being who died unnecessarily. There are no names or particular geographies."
Nearby, a group of figures, "Transitions/Displacements," created in 2012 following the deaths of her mother and grandmother, float above the floor. The large, human figures resemble funerary graveyard statuary.
"I've been looking at the idea of a placeholder. How does a person mark a place where someone is no longer taking form; is no longer alive?" Moe said. "Where does sculpture fit into all this? Monuments and memorials preceded sculpture. Sculpture is a recent invention. Most sculpture was linked to acknowledging the dead, which of course is acknowledging the living who are acknowledging the dead.
"So when Susan and I were considering the word 'When' for the title, it fit, because we don't really know what is life and what is death. We're constantly falling apart and coming together in relation to each other, in relation to the cells in our bodies. It's an illusion that there is life and there is death; they're interdependent."
The concepts of life and death, like time, she said, are cyclical, thus, unlike the "Memorial (Collapse)" there is a sense of hope as one shifts through the gallery, where you see her newest sculpture, "Remain," an 18-foot-tall androgynous kneeling figure. It is a pose found across cultures, Cross said, ticking off several examples: a Mayan goddess and a seated Buddha among them.
Beyond that, hundreds of small concrete faces, "Congregation," are installed on a wall in a constellation like structure.
"Most monuments are about individuals. Ledelle is moving us to remember the power of the collective, not just between us, but us and our ancestors and just like greater cycles of time. It's kind of an existential show obviously haunted by death, but with life too," Cross said.
And the use of concrete, Moe said, is an integral and connective part of the show, as "you can find it anywhere in the world."
"These pieces are a nod to markers and memorials that aren't specific to anybody and hopefully can hold a place in a more poetic way that speaks about the questions around it, more than specifics about it," she said. "It doesn't say this a monument to this person or this is a memorial to this person. It says could this be or might have been? It throws a whole bunch of questions up in the air.
"I think that's why the material has to be so definitive and heavy. All in all, the show is made up of 20 tons of concrete, which is a pretty definitive amount of stuff and weight to mark what isn't there. It's a lot of stuff to talk about what isn't there and that's what keeps me ticking."
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