In May of 2002, I was at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, attending a talk on their latest Matrix exhibition. Matrix is the Atheneum’s ground-breaking program of small, focussed exhibits of contemporary art, often single-artist shows. In this case, the exhibition was a series of works by L.A. artist Sam Durant. (You can read the brochure for the show here.)
Durant was showing a series of backlit vinyl signs, including a large one mounted on the museum’s front facade. These signs were drawn from photographs of protest signs carried during marches in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The words had been carefully copied onto the colorful vinyl sheets, but without their original context, their meaning became obscure. Durant included drawings based on the original photos to show the lettering in its original – yet, as they were drawings of photos, not wholly original – contexts.
Among the people in attendance were an older couple with the unmistakable look of former hippies. Perhaps it was something about their hair, or the man’s resemblance in build and manner to Pete Seeger (though Pete was no hippie.). They walked around the gallery, their faces wrinkled with concern. It was clear they felt something was missing. They sought the connection to the past, to the struggle, and found it missing. That was Durant’s intention – the name of the show was “7 Signs: removed, cropped, enlarged and illuminated (plus index)” – but this couple had trouble accepting that. To them, these signs were inseparable from the reasons for which the originals were created. Durant’s works bothered them because they were protest signs without protest.
I was bothered for similar reasons. Stripped of their meaning, the ambiguity could read as humor or be applied to other issues, but it could just as easily be applied to nothing. The signs advertised nothing, protested nothing, until it became hard to warm to no meaning.
The recent controversy, in which Durant’s sculpture, “Scaffold” was constructed at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, only to be met by complaints from Native American groups, was not hard to predict. “Scaffold” is a conglomeration of various gallows, joined together into a macabre installation that people were invited to climb up on and explore, like an Addams Family version of a jungle gym. “Scaffold” has been praised by some (here’s critic Blake Gopnik’s review of it when it was shown in Germany in 2012) but in Minneapolis it hit too close to home. Among the scaffolds Durant drew from to create the sculpture was the one used in an infamous 1862 hanging in which 38 Dakota Sioux men were executed. That execution took place an hour away from the Walker Art Center, in Mankato, Minnesota. The Walker’s Director, Olga Viso, Durant, and Dakota Sioux leaders met, and it was agreed that the sculpture would be dismantled and burned. (Update: burning is still under debate)
The Walker has a pretty good reputation both with the arts community and with Native Americans, but the controversy caught them by surprise. I guess they saw the context as something that had been removed and repurposed, just as the signs back in 2002 had been, and saw the work primarily as a sculpture with a variety of meanings. But when the original context is close to your heart – perhaps you marched in that protest; perhaps your ancestors were among the hanged – time holds tight to what is important. Like the controversy over Dana Shutz’s painting of Emmet Till in his coffin (I blogged about that here) it hit too close to home. Durant could redesign it: he gave the intellectual rights to the work to the Sioux, and has promised never to incorporate the Mankato hangings in any other work. If he has sense, he’ll take a long time and a lot of thought before offering something like this again.