Creating Art Out of Artifacts
Fred Wilson digs through museum closets for searing installations
Thursday, January 23, 2003
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle
by Kenneth Baker
Fred Wilson takes seriously the tacit promise of museums to open everything to remembrance and scrutiny. In practice, exhibition conventions trim and slant the perspective that any museum offers. Wilson has made a career of bringing the hidden content of those conventions to light.
"Fred Wilson: Objects and Installations, 1979-2000," just opened at the UC Berkeley Art Museum, surveys and extends his project of excavating the unnoticed and unremarked in contexts of display.
Bay Area visitors will remember Wilson's 1998 show at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, "Speaking in Tongues: A Look at the Language of Display." He chose objects of European and American fine and decorative art and wrote label copy describing them as artifacts of "discovered" peoples, like the African and Oceanic cultures richly represented in the museum's holdings.
Such slight turns of the museum kaleidoscope have become Wilson's signature method, which explains why some of his work does not travel well.
"Addiction Display" (1991) works well enough here, though it might gain power if placed in a museum of antiquities. Adjacent glass cases contain an array of replica ancient Colombian artifacts and one of contemporary cocaine- user's paraphernalia. Behind them hangs a vague black-and-white photograph identified by two labels as an archaeological dig and as a coca-processing site.
The drug paraphernalia display as much byplay between structure and function as the replica antiquities, but we marvel at their variety at the cost of ignoring their social significance.
So what gets ignored when we marvel at the formal invention of Mesoamerican craft works? A whole implicit apologia by amnesia for the history of European conquest and subsequent condescension toward subject peoples.
A generation of activist contemporary art has proven mainly that no redress to historical injustices on a global or local scale emerges from the patterns of plunder and cultural hierarchy enshrined in museums.
Wilson wisely stops at exposing the forgotten or unconsidered prejudices of culture consumption. Adapting the tactics of '60s conceptual and installation art, he often does little more than reposition things.
A shocking example, "Cabinetmaking, 1820-1960," places a whipping post -- reportedly in use until 1958 -- before an array of ornate wooden chairs.
That the Maryland Historical Society, where Wilson first presented the piece, lent its components tells us that victims of the cruciform whipping post must have been black and the spectators -- those who looked upon slavery as customary -- white.
Wilson's work exudes humor and humanity as well as bitterness.
In the video "Me and It" (1995), Wilson tries to perform the caricatural postures and expressions of several racist figurines arrayed on a table beside the monitor.
His performance details the grotesque distortions of the gewgaws' racist cuteness. But it also reads as a kind of incantatory attempt to rehumanize the stereotypes, which brings on an uncomfortable smile, until we see Wilson's face collapse in fatigue and disgust after trying to mimic a "darkie" grin.
"Aftermath" (2003) seems the most enigmatically alive of all the works on view: a floor and pedestal array of artifacts drawn from Berkeley's Phoebe A. Hearst Museum.
Ranging from ancient relics to modern discards, from a portable Japanese Buddhist shrine and a rusted toy truck made by a child in South Africa to an American cell phone and a Vietnamese pipe crafted from a shell casing, the installation provokes reflection on war as the force responsible for much of the dispersal and fragmentation of cultures past, which museums try to recuperate.
A Bronx native who once worked as curator of the Bronx's Longwood Arts Project, Wilson was chosen as a MacArthur Fellow in 1999 and will represent the United States this year in the 50th Venice Biennale.
FRED WILSON: OBJECTS AND INSTALLATIONS, 1979-2000: Photographs, video and reconfigured found objects. Through March 30. UC Berkeley Art Museum, 2625 Durant Ave., Berkeley. (510) 642-0808, http://www.bampfa.berkeley.edu.
E-mail Kenneth Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle