“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,”
As Dickens used literary parallelism in the opening sentence of “A Tale of Two Cities”, Glenn Ligon used a simple form visual parallelism that taps into today’s political discourse in a very profound way.
“it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities”
In a country that becomes more bifurcated along social, political and economic lines, the parallels between Dickens’ two cities and America’s two countries are glaring.
In 2006 Glenn Ligon created “Double America”, a large scale glowing neon sign that boldly flashes “AMERICA” with an inverted mirror image of itself underneath. Both Americas flicker erratically as if the energy source used to sustain it is almost depleted. The two Americas are tethered to and powered by six transformers that feed black lined white neon glass tubes that are the sign’s skeleton. The power boxes, laying exposed and vulnerable on the floor suggest a subtle sense of disregard and instability that almost goes unnoticed. Looking at the piece, the viewer is so easily distracted by the electrified spectacle that one doesn’t give much thought to what powers it- until the sign flashes off.
Is this a metaphor for today’s politics? When polls continue perpetuate the idea that we are living in two very different countries; one that feels better off than they were 8 years ago and the other that doesn’t, it’s not too difficult to see that our perceptions are radically different. Ligon created this body of work 10 years ago and based this collection of neon signs on Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities.” In a 2011 interview, Ligon reflects on “Double America”:
“I realized that Dickens is talking about a moment that society is in where everything is happening and nothing is happening, everything is booming and everyone is poor and the dichtomies between rich and poor seem to be where we are at in America.”
I think Ligon’s “Double America” asks an important, rhetorical question about our country today. In today’s society where we are drawn to bright, shiny objects and where we compulsively respond to dog whistles and fleeting soundbites, are we addicted to the temporal flicker and ignoring the substance below the surface?
The “Artist a Day Challenge” celebrates Black History Month by highlighting Black artists and diverse forms of cultural expression across the African diaspora.