get ahead: Fred Wilsons Guarded View.
Wilson: Objects and Installations 1979-2000
Tang Teaching Museum and
Art Gallery, through Dec. 31
What better time to consider a revisionist history than Thanksgiving,
the day we first celebrated with our Native American neighbors
and hosts—before we took over their lands and decimated their
communities. OK, perhaps this viewpoint will cause indigestion,
but it’s impossible to consider only one side of a story after
seeing Fred Wilson: Objects and Installations at the
Tang in Saratoga Springs. His subject is the institutionalization
of racism; the institution in question is the museum. His
tools are the props and affects of exhibition design: label
text, display cases, wall color. He uses these tools to create
fictional exhibits that engage the mind with a more complex
The retrospective was curated by Maurice Berger of the University
of Maryland, and what you see is a Fred Wilson sampler: representative
parts of numerous installations created over the past two
decades. In the selection from his groundbreaking Mining
the Museum, the gallery walls are blood red, and four
antique upholstered armchairs stand in the center of the room,
facing a heavy wooden post. This object exudes malevolence
and despair, and with good reason: It is a whipping post,
and it’s not a replica. Its surface is eroded by overlaid
gouges; a crossbar at the top (to which the victim’s arms
were strapped) gives it a crucifix form. On the wall behind
it are reproductions of “wanted” flyers seeking escaped slaves,
with chillingly descriptive phrases like “He has been ruptured
and wears a truss.” The installation is dramatic in its simplicity—the
contrast between the genteel chairs and the brutal ugliness
of the whipping post, and the placement of the chairs as passive
witnesses—this is all you really need to know.
Wilson’s original Mining the Museum established a process
he used often in subsequent exhibits. In 1991, he was allowed
access to the permanent-collection holdings of the Maryland
Historical Society. There he discovered a seldom-represented
history. As a result, he proposed an installation that would
interject selected objects into existing displays. To the
institution officials’ great credit, they agreed. The result
was a series of subtly altered displays: The whipping post
is brought out of storage and paired with the upholstered
chairs, which are repositioned so that they face it; iron
shackles are inserted into a display of ornate silver work.
Throughout the museum, there was an ongoing dialogue between
diverse objects, quietly but eloquently making their point.
Another compelling piece at the Tang is Guarded View,
a row of four headless, dark-skinned mannequins dressed in
museum-guard uniforms from four major museums in New York.
Complexities of race and class are distilled into a simple
observation: It is often African-Americans and other ethnic
groups who perform the more anonymous, menial tasks in museums,
guarding the treasures of the world. Much of Wilson’s work
has an edge of humor: The headless mannequins suggest a kind
of institutional myopia that is exasperatingly comical.
Here, also, is an engaging series of color portrait photographs
Wilson created as part of Old Salem: A Family of Strangers.
These images of worn, rough-hewn dolls, mostly black or ethnic,
possess a double shot of poignancy: As objects, they have
a charisma that belies their common materials; as portraits,
they are varied and expressive, becoming a gallery of stand-ins
for those whose histories have been lost or ignored.
It seems that when Wilson misses, the work goes from incisive
and penetrating to facile and moralizing. The selection from
his installation Friendly Natives presents four human
skeletons, each lying in an antique glass case. Wilson placed
labels in each case, which state simply, “Someone’s mother,”
“Someone’s sister,” and so forth. Because this is only a part
of the original installation, it’s hard to judge the piece.
But, while one gets his point about the dehumanizing and patronizing
gaze of the museum, it feels overly didactic.
Still, it is clear that Wilson’s work comes from intimate
involvement with and love for museums, rather than estrangement
and condemnation. Before his success as an artist, he worked
for many years as a museum preparator and educator. And it
is not stretching the truth to say that Wilson’s art has changed
how museums operate. Pre-Wilson, exhibit-wall text was presented
without assigned authorship, and to most viewers was received
as gospel truth. Now, post-Wilson, curators sign label text
routinely, encouraging the viewer to understand that the words
represent one person’s view. Critical thought is what he is
Wilson has been chosen to represent the United States at the
next Venice Bienniale. It’s nice, in this time of raging patriotism,
to be represented by someone as awake to questions as he is.
Wilson has mastered an artist’s version of the theory of relativity;
he uses an association of objects from different centuries
and cultures to fuse time and space, revealing formerly unheeded
connections, and provoking a shift in perception for the viewer.
Fred Wilson: Objects and Installations would be an
ideal place to spend what’s left of your Thanksgiving holiday.