‘Reclining Liberty’ takes a rest — and raises questions — in Arlington
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‘Reclining Liberty’ takes a rest — and raises questions — in Arlington

May 31, 2023

Lady Liberty levitated by crane above Arlington early Thursday morning, assisted by a team of Museum of Contemporary Art Arlington staff and the sculptor who made her, Zaq Landsberg. As she glided — surprisingly gracefully, considering her 25-foot-length — passersby stopped to gawk. Landsberg, 38, looked on like a watchful parent until the sculpture came to rest on the grass.

“Reclining Liberty,” modeled after her much taller counterpart, has found a new home at MoCA Arlington. The piece depicts the statue lying on her side with her head cupped in one hand, one foot flexed, the pose alluding to depictions of the Buddha during his final days before reaching parinirvana. A formal opening celebration was held over the weekend, and she will relax on the museum’s lawn until July 2024.

“By merging the traditional Buddhist reclining pose and the quintessential American figurative symbol, Reclining Liberty asks the viewer to contemplate the status of the ideals the Statue of Liberty represents,” co-sponsors MoCA Arlington and Arlington Arts said in a joint news release.

The statue, originally installed in Manhattan’s Morningside Park in 2021, is not Landberg’s first take on Lady Liberty. In 2012, he created “Face of Liberty,” which depicted the statue’s visage partially buried in the ground of New York’s Governors Island, the spikes of her crown piercing the sky. This piece, which served as an installation at Figment NYC, is also designed with audience interaction in mind.

In fact, many of Landberg’s statues involve physical interaction with space. One of his projects is space itself — a work called “Zaqistan,” in which he created his own nation in a small area of desert near Salt Lake City. Zaqistan, which Landsberg began in 2005, is home to sand, desert brush and several of his sculptures, including three “robot guardians” and a “victory arch.” Beginning in 2012, he hosted installations about the “country” in Buenos Aires, New York and Chicago.

Many of his pieces also grapple with American history and colonialism, including a reproduction of a Stealth fighter jet covered in AstroTurf and embedded in the ground, also on Governors Island, in 2011. In 2019, he created a bust of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee cast in mycelium fungus, making it look as though it is decomposing. His “Tomb Effigy of Margaret Corbin,” installed in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood cemetery, honors the first woman to die fighting in the Revolutionary War.

“Reclining Liberty” is another of Landberg’s works that interrogates what he refers to as the “Institution with a capital I.” The symbolism behind the Statue of Liberty resonates with him, he says, partly because his own family immigrated to the United States. He wanted to examine the multitude of meanings the figure carries, including those about immigration, patriotism and freedom.

For this reason, one of the piece’s goals is to be accessible — Lady Liberty is relaxed in the grass, not towering above viewers from a pedestal. It is easy to interact with her, and he hopes that people will.

“There’s plaster layers, the copper, the patina, but really, the last layer is the kids climbing on it,” he said. “This thing, it’s on the ground, there’s no pedestal, there’s no admission ticket, there’s no velvet rope.”

Blair Murphy, the curator of exhibitions at MoCA Arlington, first contacted Landsberg in 2009. The two kept in touch, and when she learned that “Reclining Liberty” would need a new home after its year-long residences in New York and New Jersey, she contacted Landsberg to see if Arlington could be next. Murphy, like Landsberg, hopes that the new context of the piece will bring unique interpretations.

“There’s memorials and monuments here in Arlington, and we interact with D.C. all the time. We thought this was interesting to bring it to this environment,” she said. “The Statue of Liberty is this emblem of all of these values that we associate with the United States. I’m interested in that aspect … that it takes this symbol of American ideals that is usually very much at a distance or on a pedestal and really breaks it down. It … has an element of humor, but then there are these conversations you can have. What does this actually represent?”

Saturday’s opening event presented attendees with the same question, but also featured bubble machines, a make-your-own-crown activity station, easels on which to draw your own masterpiece, live music and food stands. As the band began to play, most attendees admired the statue from a distance. Some snapped photos of their friends and family posing with her; one man imitated her relaxed posture, eliciting a laugh from the crowd. Although a plaque encouraged further touching of the statue, only a few did at first.

When Vera Rhoads and Stephanie Chun wheeled 18-month-old twin sisters Victoria and Margaret’s double stroller toward the statue, the lawn erupted into awwws. It took considerable finagling from Rhoads and Chun to photograph the twins, both dressed up as the Statue of Liberty. Rhoads, dressed in a Statue of Liberty T-shirt herself, says the family moved from Manhattan. They loved the real Statue of Liberty, and were thrilled that this new installation was in town.

After Landsberg’s welcome speech and Q&A session, during which he mentioned that the statue weighs somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 pounds, more families began taking pictures while climbing the sculpture. Tiffany Marchante and her five-year-old twins, Ezekiel and Isabella Ulloa, opted to draw in chalk on the sidewalk next to it. To Marchante, the statue represents her family’s experience emigrating from El Salvador. It reminds her that the United States “isn’t perfect,” she says, but she’s grateful to her parents for her life here.

“It’s my favorite color, green,” Ezekiel chimed in, hula hoop in hand, “and it kind of looks like a zombie.”

For Carol McCoskrie and Celeste Heath, “Reclining Liberty” represents American patriotic values in their complex forms. She and Heath said they appreciate the peaceful-looking symbolism of the Buddha in combination with the iconic American symbol of freedom. McCoskrie mentioned the rise in political discord in recent years, and hopes the statue will promote conversation about America’s national cultural values, especially because of its accessibility to children.

“We all have to think hard about what liberty is together,” she said.