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Can’t get ahead: Fred Wilson’s Guarded View.

Impermanent Connections
By Rebecca Shepard

Fred 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 truth.

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 after.

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.

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