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Every time sculptor Ledelle Moe checks her e-mail, she gets a look at how civilization crumbles. The photos of fallen idols, wrecked relics, and deposed statues pour in from all over the world—her international network of friends, knowing Moe’s particular artistic tastes, are quick to forward their discoveries in destruction.
Recently, somebody e-mailed her a photograph of a big stone head that had been knocked off its monumental body. “It’s…lying in beautiful-looking rubble—like, really just concrete and rebar rubble—after a bomb had hit Beirut,” says Moe, a 35-year-old faculty member at the Maryland Institute College of Art. The picture might’ve come out of her most recent exhibition catalog: “Memorial (Collapse)” also featured gargantuan heads, rolled onto their sides in an unfinished commercial space on 14th Street NW. When people passed by, they tended to stop and gape.
“There’s a funny paradox in people being fascinated with destruction,” says Moe, who fits into that category herself. A native of South Africa who was around for the fall of apartheid, Moe draws from ruination as if it were an art historical genre. Her 2000 piece (Collapse I), the first in her ongoing “Collapse” series of concrete-and-steel leviathans, depicts a reclining giant with the torso of a bison and the lower extremities of a human. The 30-foot-long sculpture lies in Queens’ Socrates Sculpture Park like a mythological vestige toppled millennia ago.
Though her work tends toward the large end of the scale, depending on the kind of devastation it depicts, Moe also goes small. For Congregation (2006), Moe crafted hundreds of fist-sized concrete heads, which she installed along the walls of G Fine Art. Though the big heads went up to New York on Sunday for a show, some of these little ones are available for viewing at the gallery. “Some of the first portraits were memorials to anonymous victims of violence, the first based on a news-photo image of a young man killed in the Liberian massacres,” she writes in that show’s catalog. “What moved me to make this initial portrait was how gentle and peaceful his expression appeared in horrible contrast to the brutality of his death.”
Moe is gregarious and engaging, almost distractedly so, and is quick to steer a conversation about ruined sites to more inviting travel destinations. Yet her art is tinged with strife and doom. Suggesting an example of the real-world images her work mirrors, she refers to a newspaper photograph of a 108-foot sculpture of Krishna in India that collapsed, killing three people. Moe’s sculptures haven’t yet reached that level of audience participation, but mortality nevertheless does come into play.
Given that the giant heads in “Memorial (Collapse)” appear to have been haphazardly lopped off a trio of disfavored colossuses, you’d expect the faces to be drawn from those of Saddam, Lenin, Kim Jong-Il, maybe even the National Party pols of Moe’s homeland. “Coming from South Africa, people who have died are [seen as] a microcosm of a bigger political ripple,” says Moe, explaining how some people tend to read her work. However, the faces reference not despots but people in Moe’s life who have died. She won’t say who, but she’s still apparently trying to get over the loss.
“[P]eople who I knew personally, or not personally—their deaths stayed with me,” she says. The heads, she says, “are about my own overturning.”
Power structures and their incumbent ripples have concerned Moe for much of her life. One of her first endeavors after graduating in 1994 from the Technikon Natal at the Durban Institute of Technology was to co-found FLAT Gallery, a collective art initiative that was meant to challenge the politics and art of pre-apartheid Durban. “The conflict outside our isolated institution was very turbulent,” says Moe. “We had our own personal space [at FLAT] to work it out.”
Moe and three colleagues—Siemon Allen, Thomas Barry, and Niel Jonker—worked at FLAT during the day and slept there at night. “It was a strange period of micro-anarchy,” says Allen, who now lives in New York. “The old regime was breaking down, [and] a new thing was coming, but there was no way to know what that new thing was. For one exhibit [at FLAT], there was too much work in the space, and Moe had made these concrete dogs, so she exhibited them outside. It was a mild thing for the time, bringing gallery work outside that context, but a couple years earlier, they would have been removed.”
During this time, Moe developed political eschatology as an artistic theme. For a 1994 FLAT piece called Forecast of Human Trembling II, she displayed a series of photographs of elderly people. It took moments for viewers who walked into the room to realize that, behind them near the entrance, stood three armed security guards. Moe had hired them to be part of the art.
“The photographs were of my grandmother and her friends,” says Moe. “I went to visit them one day, and I realized that the security was a very strong factor in the new, developing South Africa. Crime was escalating; apartheid was being torn down. My grandmother was in a pretty much all-white old-age home—it just struck me that vulnerability and age had in some way created this workforce of security.”
In retrospect, critics have labeled Moe’s work and that of other FLAT artists as South African resistance art—an activist genre that sprang from the country’s political and cultural revolution. Moe doesn’t agree with the assessment. “The people who were articulated under that umbrella [of resistance art] by Sue Williamson—she wrote a book called Resistance Art in South Africa—those were our teachers,” she says. “By the time we were functioning and studying as artists, it wasn’t about resistance.” Rather, the FLAT artists were blindly testing the boundaries in a transitional period.
All that came to an abrupt end in 1995, when FLAT burned to the ground as a result of an unattended candle. Moe, who had received a grant to study at Virginia Commonwealth University, moved stateside to complete her MFA in sculpture. The dogs Moe had exhibited in Durban led to literally bigger things in the United States as she fully embraced her beloved concrete. “[C]onceptually, it’s such an interesting material,” she says. “It’s nonprecious; it’s industrial.”
It’s also cheap, which allowed Moe to expand the size of her “canvas”—the word she uses for the surface of the concrete, once she’s poured it over an armature or otherwise molded it—to evoke civilization-sized crises. In 1997’s Untitled (Fallen) and 2003’s Thrust, for example, paired figures fuse into one giant sculpture. In these pieces, Moe references the notion of one South African identity supplanting another, even as questions remain about how historically appropriate it is to replace the monuments of the apartheid regime with new ones.
Moe’s recent focus on heads evolved naturally from her work with the human figure. “Considering everything that’s happening in the world around us, the heads seem to resonate,” says Annie Gawlak, director of G Fine Art. “With the war, with Darfur, there’s so much tragedy. Her work isn’t tragic, but it’s about this part of humanity.” Gawlak refers to Moe as “my little [Anselm] Kiefer,” because, like the German artist whose work runs the gamut of post-WWII themes, “she makes you face history.”
Moe also likes the form of the monumental head because of its “implied history” of violence and impermanence. But just as important, she says, is the heads’ contemporary message. “[T]heir eyes are closed; they’ve come to rest,” she says. “There’s surrender and serenity in the works, not necessarily conflict.”
Follow Moe through the open neck of one of the hollow heads in “Memorial (Collapse)” and a different sort of collapse becomes a concern. Each head rises to human height and weighs more than 1,500 pounds.
Moe elaborates on the ways she exfoliated and scarred the concrete skin as it dried, but she also enjoys the works’ intangibles. “In the right lighting, these necks become these black holes that seem to be the most interesting parts of the piece, ironically enough,” she says. “They have the appearance of being solid, and then they’re not. And that dovetails into the idea of all the power structures that we think are solid in place, and then they’re not—they’re very hollow.”
Moe recently moved into a 2,200-square-foot converted firehouse in Baltimore, where she lives and works. It’s an order of magnitude larger than her old cubbyhole studio in Northeast D.C., a space that stood at hilarious odds with her concrete monuments. (The really large stuff she casts on site.) Moe made Congregation in that smaller studio. Working at a clip of five to 15 heads a night, she eventually sculpted a total of 780—modeled after drawings, photographs, press images, and memories. Despite the despairing subject matter, the work turned out to be rote.
“Making those sculptures was like watching TV for me,” says Moe. “About five hours after you pour it, [the concrete] gets leathery. If you’ve ever written your name in the pavement, if you do it too soon it fills back up. So I’d pour it, make my telephone calls and my dinner, then turn on the radio and make some faces.”
The artist is currently making a piece for New York’s Axis Gallery that is both more landscape-oriented and interactive than her previous works. She describes it as a “concrete waterfall,” an architectural space enclosed by a cascade of concrete and steel that people can walk under. The departure is motivated in part by a desire to explore monuments as they appear in architecture. She’s spent considerable time thinking about how she wants to approach the piece.
“These things take a lot of time to make,” says Moe. “They’re not really supposed to tickle and please.”CP