A piece of liberty resides in Aspen

May 1, 2017

What piece of the Statue of Liberty does the Aspen Art Museum have?
Credit Claire Woodcock/Aspen Public Radio News

The Aspen Art Museum has a sculpture on display that, at first glance, looks abstract. This particular work holds more symbolism now than the museum ever anticipated.

Visiting Liberty Island in New York means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. On this day, the weather is operating on a sliding scale of overcast to showers. But the ferry is still packed with people from all over the world, excited to see this iconic symbol up close.

“It’s nothing personal, it’s just a landmark to see when you’re in New York, you just have to see it because it has a big meaning for the Americans and immigrant that came many years ago,” a tourist from Denmark contemplated.


“The Statue of Liberty means like hope for everybody. Like her name says from freedom and liberty and right now it’s a lot of repression,” said a women from Mexico on vacation with her husband.


“It was weird when Trump made an executive order, because United States of America is kind of a symbol of freedom. After that the meaning of this statue of liberty was kind of foiled,” a tourist from Iran said.


2,000 miles away in Aspen, a piece of that symbolism is on display. In 2010, Dahn Vo, a conceptual Dutch and Vietnamese artist began constructing We The People. Vo recast a life-size Statue of Liberty from 30 tons of copper sheets, about the width of two pennies.


“We're standing in the cafe portion of our roof deck sculpture garden looking out at Aspen Mountain,” Jonathan Hagman, the Aspen Art Museum’s installation director recounts. “And you'll notice it's an undulating wall of copper that has a number of rivets and seams and folds and that's it.”


Hagman said mounting, positioning and weighting this particular piece was a challenge.


“Just because of the winds up here, so it comes in two parts: the base and the sculpture,” he said. “And then yeah, once we get the position, dropped the base and welded the sculpture onto the base.”


What Hagman is describing obviously doesn’t sound exactly like the iconic monument  known worldwide. The thing is, the Aspen Art Museum only has one of 250 pieces of Vo’s longtime project reconstructing the Statue of Liberty.


But which piece does the Art Museum have? People seem to have it narrowed down:  


“It’s definitely somewhere on the robe,” said Spencer Jackson, one of the museum’s tour guides.  


“I think it’s a hip skirt but that’s just from me,” Hagman speculated.


“Somewhere in the lower third is my only guess,” said Burnie Arndt, a regular at the Aspen Art Museum.


“You have to use your imagination to think about other people standing in front of other aspects of this work in other places and what it might mean to them at that time as well,” said Heidi Zuckerman, Nancy and Bob Magoon CEO and Director of the Aspen Art Museum.


Zuckerman said the museum acquired the Dahn Vo piece from a private art collector based in Aspen. Although not intentional, she acknowledged that this work could be manifest of today’s zeitgeist.


“I don’t think we realized how sort of timely the presentation of a work of art that’s really dealing with the issues of liberty and what it means to be an American would be on view in a complex time in our country’s history,” Zuckerman said.


Burnie Arndt works for the Aspen Skiing Company. He said like many of the works in this museum, Vo’s We The People is conceptual in nature.


“I look at this fragment of it and I think it’s poignant, maybe quaint now but in context of our current immigration philosophies and attitudes,” he said. “I think it’s a good point of discussion to find out where we are and what we think about relationships to different countries in the world.”


Arndt said on second glance, the physical structure reminds him of arline debris from September 11, 2001.


Anti-terrorism messages have become a part of the Liberty Island tour. Since 9/11, visiting the statue has become a much more controlled experience. In Aspen, Zuckerman said over time, her view of Vo’s work has changed.


“Seeing it against our changing landscape,” she explained. “Our natural landscape. It looks different when it’s sunny, when it’s cloudy, when it’s covered in snow, when the mountain behind it is white or when it’s green.”


This piece of Dahn Vo's We The People is on display at the Aspen Art Museum through June 4.

Additional reporting by Joe Cardina.