After all these years, Fred Wilson still smirks when he talks about the time he wore a security guard uniform to give a tour of New York’s Whitney Museum…Later in 1991, for his first solo gallery exhibition in New York, he featured four headless black mannequins wearing guard’s uniforms from New York’s major cultural institutions. “Guarded View” would eventually land in the Whitney as part of its 1994 show, “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art.”
Riffs on race, perception and power are recurring motifs in his career, which spans nearly four decades. His most recent “artistic intervention” (as his installations are often called) in SCAD’s new Museum of Art in Savannah is no exception.
The show, “Life’s Link,” is his latest in a long line of site-specific collaborations with museums and cultural institutions throughout North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The native New Yorker has spent much of his career rooting around museum basements and reshuffling items within display cases to breathe new meaning into what we see on the museum floor.
The resulting installations have created unexpected juxtapositions: an antique silver tea service next to a pair of rusted metal shackles; a child-sized klan hood resting in a Victorian pram; a faux African-style tribal mask bearing the label “stolen from the Zonge tribe, 1899, private collection.” “Fred’s work, at its very center, asks you to really think about what is art, what is history, what is an art museum,” said Isolde Brielmaier, chief curator of exhibitions at SCAD….
His work has been known to cause confusion among critics and the public, who by turns say his work is either too accessible or too obscure.
Such was the case when the New York Historical Society enlisted Wilson to create an installation for its renovated gallery last year that highlighted the city’s often unspoken dealings with slavery.
“Liberty/Liberté” featured two busts of George Washington — one, in Romanesque robes, representing Washington the statesman; the other, with a more sinister countenance, representing Washington the slaveholder — both behind the balustrade from which Washington spoke during his New York inauguration.
Next to them rests a bust of Napoleon Bonaparte. Below, a cigar-store “Negro” holding a red French liberty cap looks up at the busts. On the backs of the pedestals hang slave shackles, metal tags used to label enslaved African-Americans and a coin representing the abolition movement. Nearby, he displayed a miniature portrait of Haitian liberator Toussaint L’Ouverture….
A bigger controversy arose when he was asked to create a monument for the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, an eight-mile path connecting the city’s neighborhoods. His proposed piece, “E Pluribus Unum,” was inspired by the city’s Soldiers and Sailors Monument, which features an ex-slave — his torso bare, his chains and shackles broken — among dramatically posed war heroes. Wilson proposed creating a second sculpture of the freed slave across from the city’s biggest municipal building — this time completely free of shackles, holding a flag representing the African Diaspora….