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Democracy on Ice

(To read other articles in our Arts-Policy Nexus series click here.)

By Marshall Reese 

Did you, too, O friend, suppose democracy was only for elections, for politics, and for a party name?

I say democracy is only of use there that it may pass on and come to its flower and fruit in manners.

In the highest forms of interaction between [people], and their beliefs — in religion, literature, colleges and schools — democracy in all public and private life….

-Walt Whitman

On the third anniversary of the Iraq War in 2006, a cool spring day, we set up an ice sculpture weighing almost 2 tons of the word Democracy to disintegrate and melt away in the garden of Jim Kempner Fine Art in New York City.

The sculpture and the process of its decay were emblematic of the forces at work in the U.S. - how the Iraq war, censorship, surveillance and torture were transforming U.S. society and the world.

We filmed and photographed the monumental letters disappearing throughout the day, documenting the transformation of a “simple” ice sculpture into a performative artwork: a mixture of performance, installation and film. The resulting documentation was distributed on the internet in videos and still photography and became the template for all succeeding sculptures we’ve done.

The State of Things was reprised in 2008 during the Democratic and Republican conventions in Denver and St. Paul as part of BrushFire, a series of public art interventions sponsored by Provisions Library.

The urgency surrounding this work had greatly intensified in the two years since the first one melted away. The 2008 election represented a real chance for the country to change course. To witness Democracy disappearing in the wings of the American political stage was an important action that needed to be made.

The news from St Paul is not good - with mass police arrests, hassling of journalists, use of pepper spray, tear gas; the throngs of people surrounding the [ice] statue in St Paul were clearly starving for Democracy.

They yearned so much for a sense of freedom that hundreds caressed and embraced “Democracy.”

They broke the letters down, stripping the ice from the base to quench the rasping parchness in their throats the authorities caused.

“Democracy” in St Paul couldn’t withstand the harsh climate - the heat, the Ramsey County Police. In the short span of 4 and one half hours in this drastic political climate: at 3:25 PM, it was gone.

[ blog post]










Hundreds of people saw the installation, including the New York State delegation to the Democratic Convention. This is a constructed photo superimposing people from throughout the day and night of the installation.










Poet Anne Waldman visited us for the unveiling of The State of Things. It was located in front of the MCADenver on the second day of the Democratic National Convention. The ice sculpture took 26 hours to melt and disappear.














The sculpture waxes and wanes throughout the process, the letters becoming skeletal as they evaporate, the letter C becomes the crescent moon.










In St Paul, we installed Democracy on the grounds of the State Capital. Tens of thousands of protesters assembled there to march on the RNC at the Xcel Energy Center.











People, touched, broke apart, and drank Democracy, placing chunks of it in their water bottles.












During the heat of the day, Democracy was hard to resist.












The State of Things cosponsored by the UnConvention was unveiled on the first day of the Republican Convention at 11 in the morning. The sculpture only lasted five hours.



Marshall Reese and Nora Ligorano collaborate as the artistic duo LigoranoReese. This is the first in a three part series of their work on the Arts-Policy Blog. 

[Photos courtesy of the Artists]




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