The Process: Marshall Reese on Making Large-Scale Ice Sculptures

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Nora Ligorano and Marshall Reese, also known as the collaborative conceptual art duo Ligorano/Reese, describe their work as striving to "communicate, to provoke conversation, to engage the public." One of the ways in which they do just that is by making huge ice sculptures and melting them down in public places; their Kickstarter project from last year funded a huge sculpture of the words The Future, which the two melted down in Manhattan during the UN Climate Summit.

In March, we're celebrating Art at Kickstarter, so we asked Marshall Reese, one half of the duo, to tell us a bit more about how and why these sculptures come to be. 

Ice sculptures in general are interesting because everyone has an experience with them, and they’re very popular. People see them at family occasions and corporate events. But Nora and I are not making them for a logo. We’re making them because we want them to disappear. We want them to become immaterial. 

The most interesting thing about ice sculptures is that they change and diminish, and they get very fragile. We live in an immaterial world — we’re generally on the internet, looking at some sort of screen. But ice sculptures are really physical. They’re cold, they have a temperature and a scale, and they’re responsive. They change over time. People can relate to that, and I think they want to. I think people are missing things in the world, so to make something so physical that it has its own transformative power is really significant.

First my partner Nora makes a mockup on the computer, usually in Illustrator or Photoshop, and we tweak the settings to make sure it will look the way we think it will look. As for making them — we hire ice carvers. In New York, we’ve worked with the same ice carver on all the projects. The sculptures are words, so we make a design of the words in a sans-serif font, Arial or Futura, and send it to the carvers. They carve the letters out of 300-pound blocks of ice, and then they put it in their freezer and bring it to the site in a truck for us.

We met the ice carvers we currently use because we were looking on the internet, and they had a nicely designed site. We went to their studio, and they were in Long Island City — at that time they were near the Noguchi Museum. They opened their freezer door, and inside were seven life-size Buddhas. So we said, OK, we’re going to work with these people.

When we’re making these sculptures, we have a very short timeline. We’re doing these at national security events. You can’t just walk in to a convention site and say, “Oh, I’ll do it there” — it’s hard to get permits, and everything will thwart you. There are a lot of moving parts to these projects.

I’m not even sure if our reputation as artists helps. Take Tampa in 2012, for example. When a city offers themselves to the political party as a convention site, they give them everything. The party is buying the whole place, the whole city. They have access to everything. In Tampa in 2012, they were reserving a few sites for the public to use, and it was going to be by lottery only. So, we had a ten-thousand dollar project, and we weren’t even sure we were going to get the site because it was by lottery. It’s weird and hard. In New York with the "Future" carving, we didn’t know if we had the site until a week and a half before. It was a matter of cost that time.

The ice carvings happen at definitive times, but it’s also the kind of words we’re using. In 2008, we melted down the word Democracy at the convention in St Paul. That was a key time — we’d just had eight years of the Bush administration, and people were worried about where government was going and where the idea of democracy was going. 

Then on the 79th anniversary of the Great Depression, we melted down the word "Economy." That captured everything — people were so unsettled, but nobody had a way to express it. Then we melted the "Middle Class" down in 2012. And most recently, we melted the word "Future." In debates about global warming and climate issues, what is lacking is the idea that the future is disappearing as well. To come up with a sculpture of a future that's going to cease to exist — that’s very heavy. Nora and I were going through some worries. It was not easy, psychologically.

These ice sculptures are not just the sculptures. There’s streaming happening on the internet, there’s a blog, we take photographs, and we do time-lapse videos. In the video, the present is zipping by the future. Some people are acknowledging it, but most people seem to be taking their pictures with it. These things are also theatrical and a spectacle. And what people were really interested in — and it’s kind of a sad commentary — is taking a photograph of themselves in front of "The Future." I don't know what they were thinking. Maybe they’re thinking the future is disappearing, but maybe they just want to have a nice photograph of themselves in front of it.

    1. Deanna Boughner on

      Very deep, gets the brain really thinking! Thanks for all the great work, and the truths in the messages. It's really opened my eyes! Thanks again! Bravo.

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