Fred Wilson is not an artist in the traditional sense; rather, he is a sort of curator––a re-exhibitionist, if you will, or an artist whose medium is museums’ collections. For Wilson creates his pieces in exactly the manner his collections’ titles would imply: he seeks to reexamine the cultural and historical significance of museums’ collections by juxtaposing pieces which have never before met one another––at least, they have never met within the walls of museums.
In 1992, Wilson selected objects from the Maryland Historical Society’s collection to present a new perspective of previously overlooked or unappreciated artifacts. He chose to present elegant silverware alongside iron slave shackles in “Metalworks”, and he arranged fine wooden parlor chairs so they faced a wooden whipping post which was once used to punish slaves in “Cabinetmaking”. Wilson typically curates his exhibits with more subtle messages, but such examples as these allow for a quicker grasp of his style. These Antebellum-era artifacts certainly existed in relatively close proximity to one another, but historically, we’ve thought of them as representing radically separate aspects of society. Exhibiting such objects as a single unit may feel like forcing the north ends of two magnets together, but doing so rightfully demands that audiences recognize how one end of society’s oppression enabled the other’s affluence, and that the same dynamic exists still today.
Wilson’s inspiration to use his particular medium derives from a combination of his heritage––he comes from a family of Caribbean and African American educators––and his conviction that what a museum doesn’t exhibit is far more revelatory of its character and humility than what it does show. While many of his curations expose racism, he says, “I don’t go looking for racism. I go towards the denial.” As it turns out, there’s a lot of what he terms “unconscious denial” of history in museum collections (Enright 23). By “mining” a museum’s collection, he discovers and reveals to the public the now-morally unattractive blind spots of its past curators. What was socially acceptable and even typical at the time of many pieces’ curation is no longer such, but frequently museums have failed to revisit previously curated pieces in light of societal changes. While this traditional style of curation results in an easily digestible and familiar timeline of artifacts, it hinders the public’s ability to realize the relationships between objects and their owners and the historical power dynamics these relationships reveal.
Sources and background:
Artnet News. “‘I’m Just Using the Museum as My Palette’: How Artist Fred Wilson Uses Venerable Art Collections to Re-Imagine History.” Artnet News, Artnet News, 10 Aug. 2018.
Enright, Robert, and Meeka Walsh. “Degrees of Subversion.” Border Crossings, vol. 35, no. 1, Mar. 2016, pp. 22–37.
Houston, Kerr. “How Mining the Museum Changed the Art World.” BmoreArt, 3 May 2017.