Return to Articles


December 13, 2003 - February 7, 2004 at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, Santa Monica

by Jody Zellen

“Atlas,” 1995, painted ceramic/
globe/pushpins/flags, 20 x 11 1/2”.

“Old Salem: A Family of Strangers,"
1995, 20 color photographs,
93 x 238", edition of 5.

“Club for Shango," 1995, bat with
ceramic chips, 34 1/2 x 3".

“Me and It," 1995, video installation
with figures on table, 57 x 92 x 44".
Fred Wilson was the artist selected to represent the United States at the 2003 Venice Biennale, and he is here the subject of a traveling retrospective exhibition curated by Maurice Berger. Wilson, who has been making objects and installations since the mid-1970s, is best known for his investigations of museums and their collections, creating evocative exhibitions that focus on race, representation and issues of colonialism in museum displays. Often he researches a museum’s collection, re-presenting particular objects to offer a new interpretation through juxtaposition of that which is usually seen with other objects or information otherwise unseen.

Museums nationwide have lined up to have Wilson create site specific works from their collections. However, this exhibition is not a site specific installation but rather a collection of individual objects that reflect Wilson’s unique approach and his ideas about art and its display. Wilson’s strategy is to mimic the conventions employed by history museums, where objects and artifacts are displayed alongside expository wall texts in order to illustrate how other cultures and peoples lived. Wilson seeks to expose racism imbedded in these displays. So in addition to its aesthetic quality, his work amounts to a critique of that system.

The earliest example in the exhibition (1979) shows that Wilson’s interest in display emerged early in his career. In this series of black and white photographs, statues and artifacts from Egypt and Peru are depicted in situ in various states of disrepair. Rather than question photographic truths, Wilson decided to concentrate on the art of display. A decade later, The Other Museum was a breakthrough work presented at White Columns in New York in 1990. Here Wilson simulated an ethnographic display, presenting objects in vitrines, wall texts and labels, as well as photographic documentation and artifacts that parodied and critiqued traditional museum displays of ‘primitive’ works.

In Wilson’s installations it can be difficult to distinguish what is a real (authentic) artifact from what is a simulation or a replica bought on the street. That planned ambiguity is part and parcel to the artist’s conceptual strat-egy. You are pushed to reflect about how museums work, what they claim to do and what they actually do In The Colonial Collection (1990) the wall is painted a deep red. Hung above a vitrine are a series of African masks. Each of the masks has its eyes covered by a fragment of the French or British flag. Inside the cabinet are a number of objects that relate to issues of colonialism-- a lithograph showing the British infantry fighting African natives, as well as a collection of insects. Wilson writes ‘official’ labels for each of his objects, as well as an accompanying wall text that offers a critical and historical view of anthropological and ethnographic discourse as presented in museum displays.

Wilson’s work throughout the 1990s focused on representation and display. He created site specific installations as well as individual objects that looked at how ‘the other’ was used and often misused in the media as well as in ethnographic displays. Wilson is less a creator than a recreator and presenter. His objects are often a juxtaposition of found elements (often found in a museum’s archives that are not on display) that exhibit racial stereotyping--black ceramic figurines or rag dolls--and which highlight the inherent racism in these objects. Through juxtaposition and representation he communicates his pointed message. For example in Atlas (1996) he fuses a ceramic figure of a black waiter holding a tray with a large globe. The globe is then covered with black map pins that represent the density of black populations around the world. Similarly, in Old Salem: A Family of Strangers ((1995) he photographs and presents a series of images of cloth dolls made by blacks in the 19th- and 20th-centuries.

While much of Wilson’s work is site specific and installation-based, when seen together there is a cumulative power. This power comes from reading between the lines, from his subtle ability to make visible in his work that which is hidden. Wilson’s work is filled with political and social commentary, yet does not come across as didactic. He begins with what is shown and with what we have come to understand as truth, and re-presents it with a twist. In all his works, Wilson conveys that his aim is to, in the words of curator Berger, "question institutional biases, presentation techniques, and accepted versions of cultural history."