Saturday, 18 of January of 2020

How Fred Wilson Vanished

E Plurus Unum a public monument proposed by Fred Wilson

I’m beginning month two of my cultural production class. We’re reading Jennifer Gonzalez’s book, Subject to Display which examines the work of artists, James Luna, Fred Wilson, Amalia Mesa-Bains, Pepón Osorio, and Renée Green, who use installation as a medium to reframe race.

Stuart Hall, in his lecture, Race, the Floating Signifier talks about the necessity of understanding how racism functions in order to be able to dismantle it. He views race not as a fixed category, but a floating one. While there is no biological basis for race, it is brought into being through the meanings we make out of it. He calls this, race discourse. The artists in the book lay bare ways that visual culture has attempted to fix the meaning of race. Through revealing these mechanisms they subvert racism.

I’m going to give a short introuduction to one of the artists, Fred Wilson. I became acquainted with Wilson’s work several years ago, when I was doing research on installation art. This form of art is basically, the placement of objects in space, generally referencing the body. I happened upon the shocking installation he created below of an antique baby carriage with a klansman hood inside.

From exhibition "Mining the Museum" by Fred Wilson

In another installation from the same show he displayed ornate silver tableware beside slave shackles from the same era.

These works were part of a show called Mining the Museum. The Maryland Historical Society opened its inventory to the artist. Wilson displayed works together that were normally never shown in the same space or were hidden away in their inventory. Through juxtaposing these objects, Wilson’s unsettled their meanings and brought history and memory to the surface.

Wilson’s practice is disruptive to say the least. He destabilizes the notion that mainstream galleries and museums are pristine spaces that present truth in absolute and neutral ways.

He hacks into institutional frameworks of museums to show how race discourse shapes the work and how it functions within the system to contain, produce and reproduce racist hierarchies through visual display and presentation.

His work, My life as a Dog, for example, featured in the opening chapter of Gonzalez’s book was an intervention in a gallery. He invited docents from the gallery to a private tour of an exhibition. He then slipped into a security guard’s uniform and stood quietly in the gallery. None of the docents recognized him. He had disappeared in plain view.  “He had become an anonymous man, an invisible man, a black man.”
(Gonzalez, 2008 p.1)

By turning around the gaze, he placed the looker squarely inside the frame. The docents found themselves at the centre of his performance demonstrating how they were implicated in the way Black bodies are framed within the gallery.

Now if you’re curious about image at the top of this page, here’s the story. Wilson was granted a commission to do a public project in Central Indiana in 2007, In the entire area, a downtrodden slave holding broken shackles was the only public image of an African American. Wilson wanted to turn this sculpture on its ear by transforming it into the victorious symbol above holding a flag with every country of the African Diaspora. Wilson’s vision for E Pluribus Unum was never realized as the project, supported by the Central Indiana Community Foundation was cancelled due to public opposition.

Here is Wilson explaining his vision.

If you want to see and learn more about Fred Wilson, here are a few sources. There are lots more where these came from.

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