Artist won’t shy from controversial issues
again?’ I said, ‘That makes perfect sense. It’s yours. You decide what happens to it.’ ”
At least one anti-censorship group called Durant’s decision as “hasty” and said it “set an ominous precedent” that could put a chill on politically minded work.
Walker executive director Olga Viso, who was quick to address the controversy when it emerged in late May, disagrees.
“Everyone had agency in this conversation,” she says. “The artist led it and offered it. He does not feel censored.”
Viso and Durant say their decision has to do with a specific local context that may not seem apparent when viewed from elsewhere.
“All of these things have nuances that need to be taken into consideration,” Viso says. “We all feel that we moved to a place of mutual respect and consideration. The work still has power. It lives in archives, in oral histories and the actions of people that live on.”
In the wake of the incident, Durant sat down with The Times for a lengthy interview (which has been edited and condensed). Seated in a book-filled corner of his Santa Monica studio, looking pensive and, at times, chastened, he explained the ideas that led him to create the piece to begin with — and why he won’t stop exploring issues of inequity and race in his work.
What sparked the idea of making a sculpture inspired by historic gallows?
It’s an iconic structure, one we know particularly from filmmaking. I’d been interested in the John Brown gallows. There is a bizarre wax museum in Harpers Ferry [with] a reproduction.
I was also doing research on labor movements, anarchism and what became known as the Haymarket Martyrs, German American labor organizers who were working in Chicago [in the 1880s]. There was a big May Day gathering in Chicago, someone threw a bomb. No one could ever prove who threw it. Four were executed. That gallows is very well known in labor history.
Then I found the last public execution, which was in 1936. Rainey Bethea, an African American man, [was] tried for the rape and murder of an elderly white woman — under racially charged circumstances. An astounding number of people turned up for that. That was in Kentucky.
These things to me symbolized certain aspects of American history: class war, genocide of Native Americans, slavery. It looked at the state monopoly on violence, of which the execution is the ultimate symbol.
In the work, it was a fairly straightforward representation. The method was to construct the decks one on top of the other. It was designed so that visitors can climb the staircases and go up on the platform. It was designed to retain some of that iconic visual presence.
Why do these episodes hold such interest for you?
I think history is not about the past, it’s about the present. In that context, this country has not dealt with history at all. [In] Germany, for instance, everywhere you go, there are monuments, memorials, markers to the Holocaust. It’s taught. It’s part of the fabric of German society: “Never again.”
The United States needs that kind of situation. So we need to first acknowledge the genocide of Native American people and that our country is built on slavery. Our wealth is built on slavery. Until we acknowledge it, it’ll be very hard to progress. As I learned in Minneapolis, we are all still losing and being victimized by this history.
When did you learn “Scaffold” had caused offense?
The week before Memorial Day weekend.
The sculpture was erected in a very prominent part of the garden, so it was highly visible. The garden itself had not been opened, the whole thing was fenced off, but you could see [the piece] clearly. [Members of] the Dakota community recognized the Mankato gallows in the sculpture. The museum — and I’m sharing the blame — didn’t reach out to the community. We didn’t think of it, to start a dialogue before we started building it.
So the Dakota people basically saw something that looked like a monument to their massacre. Mankato is burned into their consciousness. It’s not abstract. As one person said to me, “That’s a killing machine.” Then it turns out that the garden is located on [historic] Dakota land. So you couldn’t have a better test case of white ignorance in one place.
The museum called me and said there might be protests. They said, “People might want to take the work down, and how do you feel about it?” My immediate thought was, “Oh, they don’t understand the work. Once they understand it, they’ll be OK with it.” But when I got there, I saw a very different perspective.
How did that perspective evolve?
Things escalated very quickly. A protest developed, and then there was a backlash to the protest. There were people driving by the protests and screaming racist things at [protesters], saying things like, “That’s our trophy, don’t you touch that,” and throwing rocks. I thought, if somebody gets hurt because of this — that’s not what my work is about.
The Dakota elders stepped in, and they [ultimately] offered to do a session with a mediator. [The Walker] asked me if I would come. I said I wouldn’t miss it.
What was that session like?
A wonderfully experienced mediator ran the whole thing. She’d been at Standing Rock and specialized in trauma issues. There was a group from the Walker, the Dakota elders and me. It was a ceremonial circle. From their perspective, it was a spiritual session and not a political one — which allowed for a certain kind of dialogue, maybe a more open and honest one. It was very emotional.
I tried to explain a bit what the work was about. But I felt I should be listening, so that’s what I tried to do. The main issue was how real that structure was for them. The elders were very calm and respectful and thoughtful but also passionate about their view.
First, we talked about removing the Mankato gallows elements and leaving the other six. I did some images of what it would look like. But there was a feeling that a bridge had been crossed. As long as that structure was up, it would continue to remind them of what had been there.
They asked me to take it down, and I agreed.
The National Coalition Against Censorship criticized the dismantling. Others in the art world have also been critical. What is your view?
Censorship is when a more powerful group or individual removes speech or images from a less powerful party. That wasn’t the case. The Dakota are not more powerful, in political terms, or in terms of the international art world. I could have said at any point, “No, I want the work to stay up as it is, end of story. Walker, you deal with it.”
But I chose to do what I did freely. For me, it was that the work no longer fulfilled my intentions. I always hope my work would be in support of Native American struggle and justice. To hear that it was harming them, I felt terrible. I had to change it.
When [the mediation session] ended, the mood was good. From my perspective, I was like, “Oh, wow, I just did something that has never been done. And what does this mean? I hope I made the right decision.” As time went on, I know I did the right thing.
You’ve tackled race throughout your career. Have you been criticized before as a white artist examining these topics?
It comes up all the time. But I’d never had nonwhites bring it up. Usually the question was framed coming from a white art world audience: “You’re white, why do you care about this stuff? It’s not your thing.” My argument has always been that whites created race and racism, we created the situation and use it for our benefit, mostly unknowingly, so it’s up to us to be involved in acknowledging it and dismantling it.
The question of cultural appropriation never came up until now. But this situation [in Minneapolis] has given me a different perspective.
In the ’80s and ’90s, there were debates in the art world about artists representing suffering bodies. My position had been that I’m not exploiting anybody. I’m not using images of people or bodies. I felt so sure of myself, confident and smug. What I learned in Minnesota is that you don’t have to have images of people or bodies to traumatize. That was very humbling.
How did your interest in these topics emerge?
I grew up on the South Shore [in Massachusetts], close to Plymouth Rock. When I was quite young, there was a protest on Plymouth Rock on Thanksgiving. It was the early ’70s. The United American Indians of New England were saying, “Hey, America, this is a catastrophe for us, not a celebration. It’s a day of mourning.” I remember thinking, “Oh, there’s another side to this.”
How has this changed what you will do?
It’s made me much more aware how I will represent issues in my work. I don’t feel that I can’t take up any subject that I want to. The question is how do I do it? What information and what images do I use? Maybe there are some I don’t use?
I’ve started researching Confederate monuments and memorials. I already know that I need to be in touch with the organizations that are involved with this: groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center, the NAACP, groups on the ground. I don’t know yet if I will do that project. But I’m still committed to these kinds of issues.
“SCAFFOLD” by Sam Durant drew protests from Native American groups.