For decades, Fred Wilson has turned museum curios and the practice of displaying them into sites of conflict. Now the conflicts – artifacts left behind by war – are finding him.
By Glen Helfand
FRED WILSON IS poring over reams of paper – printed inventories of objects from the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology's collection – for his new installation, Aftermath. With a sly, knowing smile on his round face, which is framed by a pair of red spectacles, a bushy beard, and gray-frosted hair, he gives the impression of being a slightly devious archaeologist. The objects he's digging for are sometimes familiar but often hidden to the world. The site he's mined for decades is the museum.
In the past the finds he's pulled from the dusty closets of institutional archives, from Italy to Chicago to New York to Maryland, have included a Ku Klux Klan hood, which he playfully/shockingly placed inside a baby stroller from the same period, or "mammy" and "pappy" figurines gathered from the flea-market collectors' circuit, which he smashed to pieces while being videotaped, only to later reconfigure the wreckage into a baseball bat.
Wilson's genius is the ability to walk the line between horror and humor without giving up his right to either. His witty provocations are salient gifts to contented museum crowds – commentaries that offer viewers a chance to reflect on the deep politics and racist conventions behind the displays on the walls. You could call it corrective, but Wilson has described his practice of creative rearrangement as a "trompe l'oeil of curating."
The day I visit him, what the 1999 MacArthur "genius" grant-winning artist is curating is war and the cultural effects of it. He's taking notes on a variety of objects that may have been left behind in the rubble of conflict: an African mask, with a beard of raffia and used bullet casings, from Liberia, 1963; a broken Mesopotamian tablet inscribed with cuneiform markings; a white marble head severed from the body of an ancient Greek sculpture, set cheek-to-platform in an irreverent position of repose; and a toy truck assembled from scavenged, dented gray sheet metal, its wheels made of tin cans of the size usually reserved for cat food. Each of these objects is laid out on a long, low platform surrounded by a barrier wall that suggests, in elegant museum exhibition-design terms, an archaeological site in the midst of an excavation. It's Wilson's latest art installation in progress, commissioned by the UC Berkeley Art Museum (BAM) to complement a survey exhibition of 21 years of Wilson's work.
The show, titled "Fred Wilson: Objects and Installations, 1979-2000," pulls into Berkeley at an opportune moment. Last fall Wilson, 48, was selected to officially represent the United States in this summer's Venice Biennale in Italy. It's a major recognition, and one that seems all the more meaningful in this political climate, in which the United States has put the entire world on red alert for war.
"I realized that when museums do shows about wars, they usually feature weapons or armor – presented as aesthetic objects," he tells me. "You stop thinking about what they were used for. I didn't want to include any of those. I'm not looking at those who create the violence – it's the aftermath I'm interested in."
One of the most gracious and likable artists of our time, the engaging Wilson stands in opposition to his confrontational work. After all, Wilson sorts through museums' collections, finds the hidden fault lines, then shakes up an earthquake for the public to see. Yet his personality may be the reason he's able to do this work. It's not actually a critical dislike of museums or their culture that fuels him. On the contrary, it's a deep and troubled love for them. A New Yorker, he grew up in museums, frequenting the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but when he went to art openings in the '70s, people would hand him empty cups, thinking he was the cleanup person. When he worked as an interpreter at the Museum of Natural History in New York, visitors would treat him as a "moving mannequin." He tells "Fred Wilson" curator Maurice Berger in the show's catalog, "I've also been very cognizant of the fact that [the museum] is a rarefied environment where those 'in the know' feel comfortable. The level of comfort is often determined by education and the viewer's ability to ignore class backgrounds: denial is a 'must' in the museum."
Because of that denial – the rigid rules of museums, the stern shushing and Do Not Touch warnings, the supposed pricelessness of the aloof masterpiece wrested from the culture it was originally created in, all of which are ingrained on your psyche on that first grammar school field trip – it's hard to resist joining Wilson in his very serious joke. Giddy with its irreverent unmasking of the museum and its entrenched canon, Wilson's work has universal appeal.
The first section of the survey exhibition, which Wilson says reflects curator Berger's interest in the subject of race, points to Wilson's concern with the language of display and the conventions and impulses of collecting. It's a room painted a stately red, in which four cases, made of glass and wood, enclose adult skeletons. They recall displays of natural history museums past; but instead of representing a race, tribe, or people, they represent individuals, labeled with cards that read, "Somebody's Grandmother," "Somebody's Grandfather," "Somebody's Father," and "Somebody's Sister." Titled Friendly Natives, this 1991 piece restores a humanity to the "other," the object of fascination. The contents of the coffins could be a family, and thinking of them in that way takes them out of the realm of artifact and specimen; it makes them real. Anthropologists have something to answer for.
The piece parallels other works of the identity politics-fevered early '90s, a time when Native American artist James Luna did his seminal Artifact Piece, a performance work presenting his loinclothed body in a museum display case. But while Wilson also references his identity as a man of Carib and African descent, his interests are focused just as intently on the language and practice of institutions.
One of Wilson's most famous anecdotes relates to his 1991 sculpture, Guarded View, which comprises four headless mannequins wearing the guards' uniforms from important New York museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan, and the MOMA. (It was featured in the notorious "Black Male" show at the Whitney in 1994 and is on view at BAM.) Despite the fact that the plastic figures are painted brown, like so many costume-exhibit displays of "natives," they immediately tap into racial stereotypes and divisions of labor in the culture industry: museum guard is a vocation primarily performed by people of color. In lectures Wilson often recalls an occasion when he was asked to give an artist's tour of the collection at the Whitney. Partway through the tour, he told his audience to meet him downstairs to view some other pieces. While they were assembling, he changed into a guard's uniform and positioned himself near the elevators. He went completely unrecognized.
In "Cabinet Making," his iconic exhibit, Wilson positioned period chairs at an observational distance from an actual whipping post used to tie up American slaves while they were being flogged. The title refers to craft – it's all woodwork – but what Wilson tweaks are display conventions: why show the chairs of an era and not the torture devices? What are we trying to hide? The vinyl label on the wall above the chairs features the dates 1820-1960, which refers to the century and a half of the punishment's shockingly lengthy life span.
Wilson's breakthrough exhibition was "Mining the Museum," which took place at the Maryland Historical Society in 1992 and featured "Cabinet Making." After creating faux museum installations in alternative spaces in New York and elsewhere, he was given, for the first time, the job of reworking an actual collection at a repository of regional heritage. The show revealed the racist impulses that run deep in the storage rooms but, for obvious reasons, get shuffled to the back of the collection or whose narratives get softened in the wall label, another form Wilson has extensively used in his work.
It's easy to imagine that this practice could lose its punch, yet Wilson's work has a resilience because he's an unflagging researcher who responds to his material, taking into account the tenor of the times. For the piece Aftermath, Wilson (along with a research team of students from the art, art history, and rhetoric programs at UC Berkeley) sorted through the collections of the Hearst museum, which contains some four million items, as well as BAM's art holdings, to create the new installation. (Berkeley's is the only institution on the career survey's eight-venue tour for which Wilson is creating a new piece.) The possibilities were endless.
"I usually let the objects tell me what to do. Each institution affects what the project is – the staff, collection, etc.," Wilson says. "When I first started working on this piece, I was very aware of the media's discussion of war. And being in New York around September 11 – I was actually supposed to be in [the World Trade Center] that day – and in the year since, with Cheney talking about other things that might happen, the discussion of war was the thing on my mind while looking at these objects."
In surveying all of the material, Wilson observed that it seems no place has escaped the ravages of war. "War has destroyed everything over the years. The world's cultural art and artifacts are actually what is left over after conflict, it's what has survived."
As is his wry practice, the installation points to the ways institutions develop a protocol for dealing with difficult ideas in archiving and displaying the hallmarks and detritus of world culture. He's interested in the ways that museums of all sorts usually show the most beautiful things while perhaps there are homely, damaged objects that tell more poignant, realistic stories. Those are the things usually kept in the deep freeze of the storage facilities, the things that no one sees for aesthetic, or perhaps political, reasons. Here Wilson shows us both, placing pristine examples in display cases and damaged goods on the open-air platform.
Included in Aftermath is a standard-issue cell phone, which seems like an oddly quotidian contemporary inclusion, though the date of 2001 could be specifically read as "Sept. 11." Wilson describes a phenomenon that emerged from the dust of the WTC attacks: cell phones strewn on the downtown streets, ringing with calls from concerned people trying to find missing loved ones. It's an object of contemporary life reframed by a momentous event and reframed again by exhibition showcasing. "Personal items, seen in a museum, evoke a sense of tragedy," Wilson says. "Anthropology museums collect everything. Not only do they have prime examples, but they have everything around it to provide context." He points to the infamous Ishi, the Yahi Indian who actually lived in the Hearst museum from 1911 to 1916 (when the museum was housed in San Francisco), saying, "If Ishi carved something, they keep that – and all the shards of wood from it." Wilson notes that Ishi came to Western civilization because of genocide; he was forced to leave his own culture. And all of his personal effects are now kept in the museum.
Next month Wilson jets off to Italy to develop his piece for the Venice Biennale, which opens June 14. To represent the United States at this time of global tension, Wilson is addressing the appearance of Africans in European art of the Renaissance by borrowing classic Italian paintings from dealers, fabricating clothing, and photographing African faces in other paintings (a practice he's engaged in before) as well as faces of Senegalese street vendors in Italy. "I'm interested in history, but also the contemporary and [in] connecting that to the historic," Wilson says. He'll also be creating a related Web project. (A previous Internet piece, created for New York's MOMA's 1999 "Museum as Muse" exhibition, is currently viewable online at moma.org/exhibitions/1999/wilson/index.html.) As he says in the catalog to the survey show, he sees his work "not so much guiding people to an idea ... [but] revealing the deep insights and contradictions that have always been there, waiting to be revealed." "Is my work political?" he wonders aloud when I ask him. "I think it's just a part of who I am, so I never think of it that way. But I suppose it is. I can't not see these things and not respond."
Such an attitude has perhaps made Wilson feel welcome in the Bay Area, where the Manhattan-based artist has regularly taught and exhibited. "Curators and institutions here have been more open to what I do more than anywhere else in the country," he says. (He'll also be teaching in the California College of Arts and Crafts' curatorial studies program next fall, joining artist Whitfield Lovell, his partner of more than 20 years, who'll be in residence at the San Francisco Art Institute.)
His first San Francisco endeavor was the 1993 Invisible Life: A View into the World of a 120 Year Old Man, a Capp Street Project-sponsored piece in which he added a human element to the realm of the "historic residence" – in this case, the Haas-Lilienthal House. Wilson altered the 1886 Queen Anne Victorian by adding the personal effects of a fictional character – Baldwin Antinous Stein – to the preserved interior. He concocted a life and joyfully inserted the narrative into the docent-led tours. While never outwardly stated, the letters on the tables, the photographs on the mantles, the Greek pottery, the male-physique paintings on the walls, and the silk pajamas in the closet suggested a man who was gay and mixed-race.
At a 1997 exhibit at the Rena Bransten Gallery, which represents him in San Francisco, he showed a series of photographs and sculptures based on the ceramic mammy and pappy figurines (later to be smashed and reassembled) so coveted on the collector circuit. These works, included in the BAM show, explore the artist's difficult relationship to offensive tchotchkes, which he says gain power because of their rarity. By reconfiguring these collectibles with others representative of different cultures, he gives both new meaning. For example, Atlas, a sculpture from 1995, positions a figurine of a black waiter, whose serving tray holds a globe to which Wilson has added pins mapping the world's major black populations. Rather than being in a position of servitude, the male figure holds the globe like a god.
In 1999 Wilson completed projects for the de Young Museum with the commissioning participation of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. For the latter, Wilson created the exhibit "The Greeting Gallery," in which he built an official-looking glass room that contained indigenous objects – baskets, pipes, instruments, and so on – which maintain a function in existing communities. On the door of the room was a sign stating that the room was open by appointment only on Mondays, a day on which most museums are traditionally "dark," or closed to the public. Wilson here acknowledged the little-known fact that native peoples often have to visit museum storage facilities to look at culturally significant objects. "He had just come back from Australia and was impressed by the way people there dealt with claims of aboriginal people," says Renny Pritikin, chief curator at the Yerba Buena Center, which commissioned the piece. "He thought that Americans had a lot to learn."
"More recently," Wilson has stated, "I think museums have hoped that people of color would change so museums would not have to. The multi-culti public face of the museum is there to bring in the 'community,' but the displays are just the same old Euro-American view." Which may be why, in the adjacent gallery, Wilson worked with the de Young proper to engage in the kind of practice he's best known for: mining the collection. The show, titled "Speaking in Tongues," involved altering wall-label language to topple us/them conditions. Paintings, for example, were referred to as "painted textiles," as if they were cultural artifacts. Again, a pointed political statement was addressed with gentle cleverness. Elsewhere, he commented on the value of the museum object by presenting paintings in states of disrepair, revealing the strange inscriptions on the backsides of furniture and making full, ironic use of nearly every Plexiglas case in the museum's storerooms to make an affectionate dig at the official preciousness of the setting.
"I love museums like I love my family," Wilson says. "And families could always improve."
'Fred Wilson: Objects and Installations, 1979-2000,' runs Jan. 22-March 30; 'Aftermath' runs Jan. 22-July 20. Wed.-Sun., 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Berkeley Art Museum, 2626 Bancroft, Berk. $8. (510) 642-0808.