Fred Wilson and the Memory of Objects – Vera List New School Art Collection Writing Award Winner

By Hillary Bliss

I would like to think that objects have memories.

-Fred Wilson1

What would it mean to consider the inanimate objects that surround us, that we make and use in our daily lives or preserve and revere in museums, as things capable of memory? What are the implications of the thought structure Wilson proposes? To better understand what the artist Fred Wilson is calling the “memory” of objects, we can look at a specific work of his on display in the lobby of The New School’s 66 Fifth Avenue building. There, in a lobby corner that’s easy to overlook despite its surrounding glass walls, is Untitled (Pride & Prejudice) 1993, a concrete sculpture consisting of two previously separate statues. What at first glance appears to be a boy sitting on the shoulders of man, is actually a seated black boy in overalls precariously balanced on the head of a classical male figure.

Made in 1993, the artwork comes a year after Wilson’s influential exhibition, “Mining the Museum: An Installation by Fred Wilson” at the Maryland Historical Society in conjunction with The Contemporary in Baltimore, Maryland. Using the Historical Society’s collection as his materials and the forms and traditions of museum display as an artistic medium, Wilson created a powerful critique of institutional and racial bias forever changing museology. By displaying ignored artifacts of slavery and exposing charged and telling gaps in the museum’s collection, Wilson “raised the historical consciousness of all visitors and revealed to people of color how they have fared in the world of museums.”2

In this exhibition, we can see how Wilson illustrates the complexity of meaning by pairing artifacts together in ways that catch the conditioned museum visitor off guard. He uses this element of surprise (that we see again in Untitled (Pride & Prejudice)) as a means of exposing and challenging traditional interpretations. In “Mining the Museum,” Wilson labeled a traditional museum vitrine filled with silver goblets and decanters “Metalwork, 1723-1880” and placed a pair of slave shackles in the center, quietly amongst the opulence. The busts of non-Marylanders Henry Clay, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Andrew Jackson are presented beside empty pedestals of non-existent busts for Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Benjamin Banneker, all African American Marylanders of historical importance. In describing his intention behind “Mining the Museum,” Wilson has said, “I’m not trying to say that this is the history that you should be paying attention to. I’m just pointing out that, in an environment that supposedly has the history of Maryland, it’s possible that there’s another history that’s not being talked about.”3 In challenging a singular or authoritative interpretation of history, Wilson explores objects as containing a multitude of meanings, or memories. To make this leap from “meanings” to “memories,” it’s important to note that possessing memories does not necessitate that the object be conscious or capable of recalling said memories. Instead, we can understand it as containing a storage of memories created in its production and use that are activated in our remembering, latent in the object with the possibility of being forgotten.

The sculptures that make up Untitled (Pride & Prejudice) don’t come from a museum collection, but were instead, as the wall text describes, lawn ornaments found in Atlanta, Georgia. The common material of concrete allows for a cohesive sculpture despite their desperate subjects. The bottom, a classical Greek or Roman male figure, stands on a base decorated with stylized foliage. Nude except for a cloth tied round his hips and shoulder, the man stands contrapposto with left hand clutching a bow and right reaching over his shoulder for an arrow. The fact that it was a lawn ornament is testament to the kitsch level of classical Greek or Roman iconography. It’s a whitewashed and at times lazy reference to the ideals of beauty, Democracy, and high culture. One need only look at the concentration of Greek-revival architecture in Washington D.C. to understand how thoroughly this iconography is entrenched in our sense of American Democracy. The little black boy, on the other hand, is an exercise in American racism. The docile figure with his demure smile, tattered overalls, and coyly stacked feet is what Wilson calls in the wall text an “infantilization of the black man, a denial of the rage black males felt over their humiliation and abuse at the hands of the dominant white culture of the time.” It doesn’t matter how many people pass this sculpture ignorant of this meaning. The memory of the meaning is still a part of the object and remembered powerfully by some.

At the core of Wilson’s practice is the power of placement, so the positioning of the boy on top of the man is essential. Again in the wall text, Wilson notes that it’s a rarity for the races to appear together in American monuments and memorials. When they do, the black figures are invariably below the whites, allowing for compositions that reinforce the narrative of whites as virtuous liberators in the story of emancipation. By placing the boy on top of the man, Wilson’s intention is more than a passive reflection on racism and kitsch. It is an active attempt to create new meanings and structures of thought as a means of rectifying the problem of narrow, singular interpretations. Throughout the wall text, Wilson uses words of action to describe his purpose. He writes that the “work is about readdressing the balance of power and race relations” and that the positioning of the boy is both an act of defiance as well as an attempt to “deprogram” his psyche.

In 2007, Wilson was commissioned by the Cultural Trail to create a monument in downtown Indianapolis. It was his greatest opportunity yet to intervene and re-contextualize the black figure in large-scale public monuments. His proposal, E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One), called for a recreation of the only person of color in the city’s many monuments, an African-American freed man on the base of the city’s Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument. He’s a seated, half-clothed figure raising a hand and displaying broken shackles. Similar to Untitled (Pride & Prejudice), Wilson uses repositioning as a means of empowerment. He leans the passive, seated figure forward on a tilted platform so that he appears to be standing up. In his hands, he holds a flag of collaged African flags in celebration of the African diaspora. Perhaps proving Wilson’s point as to the power and complexity of interpretation and memory, the project met with an uproar of controversy and was cancelled in July 2011.

In his work, Wilson demonstrates that we are active participants both in imbuing objects with meaning and in interpreting and extracting meaning from them. Understanding the complexities of their meaning — how and why they were built, used, and viewed — helps us better understand the forces behind them and the inherent complexities of humanity. For Wilson, the meaning of objects is malleable and ripe for interference. They each hold a memory bank of meanings, and though hateful and offensive memories should be actively corrected, they should not be forgotten. The goal is not erasure but rather an embracing of the multitude. It’s a process of re-contextualization that involves at its very core an act of remembrance.

1 Susan Sollins, Susan Dowling, Matthew Ritchie, Fred Wilson, Richard Tuttle, and Roni Horn, Art 21: Art in the Twenty-First Century: Season Three, Structure (2005; Alexandria, Va.: PBS Video, 2005), DVD.

2 Judith E. Stein, “Sins of Omission: Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum,” Art in America Magazine, (October 1993).

3 Martha Buskirk, Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler, and Fred Wilson. “Interviews with Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler, and Fred Wilson,” October 70 (1994): 98-112.