Artist won’t shy from con­tro­ver­sial is­sues

Los Angeles Times - - CAL­EN­DAR - carolina.mi­randa @la­

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.

David Joles Star Tri­bune

“SCAF­FOLD” by Sam Du­rant drew protests from Na­tive Amer­i­can groups.

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