How cleaning a statue became an alum’s most provocative performance

In Richmond’s Chimborazo Park stands a scale replica of the Statue of Liberty, built in 1950 as part of a nationwide project by the Boy Scouts. For this year’s InLight event, held in the park, sculpture graduate Sandy Williams IV (MFA ’19) decided to conduct a performance where he would clean the copper statue. It may have been the first scrub-down it had received in decades—but it wasn’t easy to achieve.

“Turns out, there’s a lot of people that don’t want you to even clean monuments,” he said.

In the week leading up to InLight’s Nov. 15 launch, Williams visited the park each day to prepare for his performance. He raked the leaves at the base of the statue, pulled weeds, and tested small patches of the copper to experiment with different cleaning brushes and polishes. As he worked, he was regularly approached by neighbors who urged him to stop, accused him of vandalism, and questioned his intentions and authority. One man called him an “ignoramus.”

The confrontations came as a total surprise.

“There’s an attachment to patinas,” said Williams, referring to the natural buildup of oxidized chemicals on metals. Many public statues are famous for their patina, such as the weathered green of the original Statue of Liberty in New York. “It’s a collection of time that tells you how long something has dominated that space. By cleaning it, I felt like I was hitting the reset button on that statue.”

But removing the patina also allowed Williams as an artist to interface with a particular idea of American liberty and freedom—one that is defined by age and pedigree and secured by enduring monuments. Chimborazo was once the site of an enormous Confederate military hospital, and was a proposed site for some of the statues that now stand on Monument Avenue.

“In the ’50s, Virginia was still segregated,” said Williams, “so a lot of the decisions about public space were made in a way that didn’t allow half the population to have any agency or input into what those things are. And yet today, there’s still an inability to move those things, to even touch those things.”

Williams IV’s team surrounds the Chimborazo statue as they clean it during InLight.

The artist and a team of peers ultimately cleaned the statue to a shine before and during InLight, in a performance titled “The Arm of Liberty” (after the Boy Scout project’s name “Strengthen the Arm of Liberty”). Powerful studio spotlights blasted the copper as its metals were once again exposed to the air, with the intention to eventually reflect blinding beams back at the audience. The work was commissioned for InLight by host 1708 Gallery, whose staff ensured early on that the artist’s project was cleared by the Richmond parks department and police. The months of paperwork, negotiations and contract-writing required to arrange “The Arm of Liberty” soon became a part of the artwork itself.

“There’s so many logistics to the idea of liberty, and the idea of me getting up on a scaffold and scrubbing this thing,” said Williams. “The things that I thought would be simple about the project became the most difficult parts. … The magic and terror of public art is that you really don’t have a lot of control over the context that surrounds you.”

“The Arm of Liberty” echoes Williams’ other time- and materials-focused work, which test notions of persistence and exhaustion. He’s carried out specific tasks in front of a camera until its SD card filled up, designed a suitcase with a timer that resets when it’s moved or unplugged, and asked participants to write a single line on a typewriter over and over until they couldn’t anymore. But his latest performance added the unexpected element of instant public feedback, magnifying the power of cleaning something he’s supposedly forbidden to touch.

“It was so important that we get to put our hands on it,” said Williams. “We can care for it. That was my initial reason [for this project]: to bring it back to the contemporary, into the conversation. It’s something that we get to participate with. We don’t get to move it, but at least we get to clean it, shine it, make it seem like something that we actually care about: this idea of liberty.”