Site Specific Essay on Glenn Ligon’s For Comrades and Lovers (2015)
Site specificity is a genre of art in which a work of art is made for a specific location. Site-specific art is often so tied to the space that it is made for, that if it was moved out of the space the meaning of the work would be greatly changed or corrupted completely. Though the exact date of emergence of site-specific art is up for debate, site-specific art as a movement became prominent in the 60’s and 70’s and has been an important part of modern and contemporary art ever since. Glenn Ligon’s For Comrades and Lovers (Fig. 1-3) is a site-specific work created in 2015 for the New School’s 65 Fifth Avenue Event Cafe. As a site-specific work of art Ligon’s work is both influenced by and influential to the space in which it’s displayed. Ligon designed the work of art so that it would both fit into and so that it would create a conversation with the space of the Event Cafe.
For Comrades and Lovers consists of almost 200 ft of neon lights that go around all 4 walls of the Event Cafe, creating a band of poetry in the space. The neon lights glow purple against the black stone walls of the space and are in a simple sans serif font so that the words are legible from all levels of the cafe. Whether you’re walking through the space, sitting on the bleacher-like steps on the first floor or sitting in the Event Cafe area on the lower level, you are able to read the glowing purple words. The words that make up the piece are quotes from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The words transform the piece into a conversation about poetry and the political and societal connotations that Whitman’s poetry holds. By entering into the space and seeing Ligon’s work you are then entered into the conversation with the poetry. Ligon had to be selective with what selections from Whitman’s work he chose so that the work would fit in the Event Cafe. By picking and choosing the quotes that he did, Ligon was able to highlight Whitman’s desire for a truer democracy and a more tolerant society. Ligon’s work perfectly fits the location both in its size and its message.
The versatility of the Event Cafe and surrounding area that the work is placed in gives the work a greater impact. By being in such a central location the work is able to interact with multiple different spaces at once. The work is also a few feet away from the main entrance so the neon lights are able to draw viewers like moths to a lamp. The New School likes to pride itself on being a very liberal, politically aware university. By looking at just about any aspect of the New School you can see the desire to promote tolerance and inclusivity. By having a work of art that talks about democracy and tolerance right by the entrance of the university’s main building, the university is putting its foot forward and announcing that equality and tolerance are two of its highest priorities.
Ligon’s For Comrades and Lovers shows how progressive politics, poetry, and democracy all intertwine and he opens the conversation for people to figure out where they fit into that conversation. Ligon doesn’t simply propose the idea of poetry being used as a vehicle for progressive politics, he uses the work of one of the most famous Amercian poets in history to show that poetry has already been successfully used as a progressive political tool. Ligon’s work is a call to democracy and the importance that language play in how we view it.
Fig. 1-3. Glenn Ligon. For Comrades and Lovers. 2015. Neon. 193.8 ft. The New School Art Collection, 65 Fifth Avenue Event Cafe