Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ Unburning Freedom Hall

Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ Unburning Freedom Hall had the greatest impact on me because its subtle engagement was emotionally and intellectually gripping. Attractive in its formal simplicity, it was inspiring to walk into. The artwork is composed of seven mounds of crushed glass gleaming in the sunlight. In the centre, a blue, circular glass table, is suspended by steel wires, “the hearth” surrounded by chairs. There, people could sit, ponder, or fill glass jars. Racks, on opposite walls, hold six hundred such containers. One jar includes a handwritten note telling of a boy’s brush with fire, another displays toys and the participant’s photograph. Upon entering the installation, on a TV monitor with headphones, sounds of crackling flames and foot-steps are heard as Ukeles recalls the opening of Philadelphia’s Freedom Hall in 1838, built on donations for the assembly and free speech of African Americans, women and abolitionists. It was set ablaze four days later by an infuriated mob. An uncanniness resonates from the clash of “materials” – space, glass, sunlight, Ukeles’ soothing voice – and the severity of the event she recounts.

This project is to re-construct Freedom Hall in spirit while trying to “unburn” what Ukeles calls “a continuing fiery hatred of the Other.” In her rebuilding effort, she met with local street maintenance workers, sanitation workers, firefighters and school children, each time telling of the tragic event and inviting participants to fill jars and produce building stones of dialogue. “Like the original 1838 builders” Ukeles said, “I needed to form coalitions and get donations to begin re-inventing this dream.” Thus, a unique historicizing process has begun. A transfer of responsibility occurs as we are placed in the past to reflect and correct, and located in the present to act and react. Significantly, the installation, representing a process of re-construction omits the classical references that are traditionally an essential part of architectural historicism, such as the engaged pilasters of Freedom Hall’s original facade. Out of her desperation (“I cannot just sit in ashes”), Ukeles altered the structural vocabulary which failed to uphold the original building and its founding principles and replaced it with stones of dialogue. The mounds of glass, which could be read as remnants of destruction, are within this discourse a visual measure of progress: the walls are rising. Their bold physical presence and translucent quality articulate ascent. While still fragile, nothing is as yet firmly cemented, the re-building of Freedom Hall is in a state of transition. From hate and destruction to acceptance of the “Other,” the dream of embrace is liminal; it is in a state of becoming.

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