Anyone who listened to George W. Bush use the word ‘freedom’ 27 times in his second inaugural address last January was probably reminded that political speeches are wrought from a language that can act both grand and generic. The ‘F word’ of Bush’s rhetoric is the linguistic equivalent to what Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, in their landmark study of Las Vegas signage and architecture, termed a ‘vast space-connector’ – a sparkly nothing that connotes a whole big promise of something beneath it, just off the rhetorical highway.
Shannon Ebner’s series of photographs ‘Dead Democracy Letters’ plays off another variation of a ‘vast space-connector’ – the Hollywood sign – to remind us of the fallacy of such promises. The photographs that comprised the artist’s début solo show, almost all of them black and white, document temporary landscape installations of large flimsy letters that she constructs in undeveloped land around Los Angeles. Made mostly of painted cardboard propped up with wood and sandbags, Ebner’s fragile word sculptures illustrate both the sublime potential and the weakness of language. The Hollywood sign itself contains in its history this gap between promise and disappointment. Having begun as an advertisement for a property development called Hollywoodland (the ‘land’ was dropped along the way after the developer went belly up), it became in 1932 the site of the suicide of a young actress who jumped to her death from the ‘H’, linking the sign and the city with dashed dreams of overnight stardom.
Ebner’s work can first appear to be flat-footed and literal, when in fact its metaphorical undertones are more complex. The artist flirts with a range of art from the 1960s and ’70s, including Bruce Nauman’s Conceptual photography and Ed Ruscha’s word paintings, but it is Robert Smithson’s Yucatán mirror displacements that seem most clearly related to ‘Dead Democracy Letters’. Ebner cited Smithson’s writings in an earlier show, in particular his interest in the horizon as a point of spatial and temporal elasticity, and the strongest piece in her series spins this idea to create a photographic monument to Martin Luther King. For MLK Double-Horizon (2003) Ebner erected the number ‘74’ – the age King would have been when the photo was taken – along an empty ridge. By lining up the crossbars of the cardboard numbers with the horizon in the photograph, the gap between landscape and figure is collapsed, and in turn the past and present moment when the picture was snapped. There is nothing nostalgic about the work, just a simple acknowledgement of a lost reality that might have been.
That false reality of the photographic image is what motivates Ebner more than any performative or sculptural presence her installations may have, and in her best pictures the meaning derives largely from an awareness of the camera’s artifice. Participating in Andrea Zittel’s High Desert Test Sites in 2003 in Joshua Tree, California, she photographed a large installation made with the words ‘LANDSCAPE INCARCERATION’. She did this before everyone arrived on the scene, so that only dirt-bikers kicking up dust in the distance might have noticed the piece as an object in space. Visitors received a duotone newsprint copy of the resulting image, shot from behind the letters, so that they appeared to be on the inside of a proclamation looking out.
In general, Ebner is anxious not to lock anything up. The artist’s temporary habitation of landscape parallels her use of language: she is careful not to freight either too heavily, either with physical form or specificity of meaning. The empty scenery of her photographs, however bleak, points to her interest in an American brand of romantic, untrammelled wilderness and, by extension, to a certain purity of language. Purity has its pitfalls, however. A work such as The Folding Up (2003), like most in this show, is almost too disconnected from its place of inspiration – a passage in the Koran that talks about the sky swallowing up the world – to make its full point. If there is a danger in Ebner’s practice, it is that it sometimes veers too closely towards the corrosiveness of political speech, which drains words such as ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ of specific meaning and uses them to construct a blank landscape that people can personalize and furnish according to their own ideology.
But by exploiting that gap between the strength and vacancy of the language she chooses, and extending it into physical terrain, Ebner lets us in on a discovery that doubles as an admonition to both us and her: the sublime power of words, like nature, depends on their virginity and resistance to ownership. Are we destined, Ebner seems to be asking, to despoil poetic languages of resistance as we have despoiled the land – enacting a sort of ‘language incarceration’ – and if we have already started to do so, how can it be reclaimed and set free?