Gallows Composite B (John Brown Gallows, Billy Bailey Gallows, Lincoln Conspirators Gallows) (2008), wood, mirror, installed dimensions variable, installation view at Praz-Delavallade, Paris, 2008. Courtesy Sam Durant and Praz-Delavallade, Paris. All images: Unless otherwise noted, © Sam Durant, courtesy Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo.
ART iT: Earlier this year you were the subject of controversy when your work, Scaffold (2012), was installed in the Walker Art Center’s Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Members of the local Dakota community were upset by the work’s representation of the Mankato gallows, which was used in 1862 to execute 38 Dakota men in the largest mass execution in US history. What gets lost in the controversy is that the work was a chimerical structure made up of gallows from across US history. It was not strictly about one specific incident, but rather embodied an archaeology of capital punishment in the US.
SD: Yes. Scaffold was designed such that it wouldn’t be immediately evident as to what it was. And, again, archetypal in the sense that a gallows is widely understood. Almost every culture in the world has some kind of gallows. While the work was very much about US history, it also related to other historical and cultural contexts.
Scaffold was commissioned by documenta 13 in 2012 and shown successfully in Europe for almost three years after that – in the sense that it operated the way I intended it to – as a platform for discussions about capital punishment and the ability of a nation-state to have a monopoly on violence. But when it came back to the US, it wasn’t viewed in symbolic terms. As the work was being constructed in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, the Dakota people immediately recognized the form of the Mankato gallows, but there was no information about the work available in advance. We made a fatal mistake: we did not do any community outreach, nor did we have any relations with the Dakota people who lived in the area, so when the work was put up in such a public location, people didn’t know what it was. They only saw that the Walker Art Center, which to them represents the culture of the powerful elites, was putting up something about their genocide. It was very traumatic, and I didn’t realize how powerful these symbols still are in the US, particularly for the Dakota people who are still living in Minneapolis, near where their ancestors were executed. That history is very real for them, not symbolic. The work was deeply traumatizing for the Dakota people who lived in the area and it was clear that it could never be understood in the way that I intended it.
ART iT: You specifically said the reason you agreed to remove the work from the Sculpture Garden and have it be destroyed is that it no longer fulfilled your intentions. That’s an unusual response to a situation where you could have easily just invoked free speech, but it also seems like an alternate way to approach the problem through the criterion of artistic integrity.
SD: It was impossible to do otherwise. Because it was so traumatic for the Dakota community, I thought that if they wanted it, they should have it. So many things have been happening with artists doing work that offends a particular minority group that I thought, why not try a new approach? Because usually artists just say, “It’s freedom of expression, get used to it. I have the right to say whatever I want, and you can’t tell me not to.” I think that’s a basic premise, a constitutional idea, but free speech is not without limits and responsibilities. And I think whites have a particular responsibility because of our privilege. When people who are not white tell us, “That really hurts, it’s not ok,” we should listen.
Both: Pilgrims and Indians, Planting and Reaping, Learning and Teaching (2006), mixed media, motorized platform, 274.3 x 487.7 cm, installation view at Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, 2007.
ART iT: Does it change the significance of the work?
SD: I’m sad to lose what I felt was an important work and something that would have been in a public place for many years. I also acknowledge that the situation produced something perhaps more profound than the work could have itself – it has been transformed through the whole process into a dialogue and debate that I think will continue for quite some time. When you make explicitly political work like I do, work that is about the world, then it’s meant to have an effect in the world. I don’t believe that art itself changes systems or creates political change, but I do believe that it can create situations where individuals can alter or shift their perspectives or have a transformative experience. And it’s really not fair for me to claim I want to have an effect on people, but then, when it has an effect I don’t expect or don’t like, turn around and say, no, I’m an artist, it’s all about art. So I guess I had to step out of the role of the artist and the idea that Scaffold was not real, it’s just representation, because people were telling me, “No way man, this is real, we can’t sleep at night, we’re having nightmares, we’re having PTSD triggered by this thing, our children are freaked out.”
ART iT: Was it really so prominent?
SD: Yes. The Mankato gallows is highly prominent in the structure of the work, because it’s the biggest of all the gallows. People were driving by and just freaking out, really freaking out. They recognized it immediately. The stories I heard in the meetings with the elders were really terrible. There were a lot of things we learned from those meetings, and had we spoken with them before we installed the work, it might have been possible to do something different. And by we, I mean also the Walker Art Center staff and board members who were in the meetings. For instance, the Dakota have one of the highest teenage suicide rates of any ethnic group in the country, and maybe in the world, and one of the ways the teenagers commit suicide is by hanging themselves. That’s something you probably wouldn’t know unless you went and talked to them, and we didn’t do that, which was obviously a huge mistake.
Another thing I realized in Minnesota was that, at this particular moment, the work would have caused problems no matter where it would have been situated in the US. That’s because we haven’t dealt with our history. We don’t acknowledge it. I compare it with the way Germany has acknowledged the Nazi period and the Holocaust. Everywhere you go there are markers and memorials and commemorations to the genocide, you learn about the history every day at school. The concepts of not forgetting and “never again” are completely integrated into the culture at every level. Until we do that in the US, a work like Scaffold would just trigger too many painful things that have not been dealt with by the larger culture.
Left: We are the people (index) (2003), graphite on paper, 76.2 x 55.9 cm. Right: We Are the People, on view at Project Row Houses, Houston, 2003. Photo Rick Lowe, courtesy Project Row Houses, Houston.
ART iT: Speaking of which, you edited a book on the work of Emory Douglas, Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas (2007), which in turn led to an exhibition that toured from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles to the New Museum in New York. The show was well received, but during the organizing process did you discuss with Emory the ethics of moving from a position of resistance into an institutional context?
SD: Emory always said he never wanted to show in museums or art galleries. He was making art for the newspaper, The Black Panther. The leader of the Black Panther Party, Huey Newton, told Emory that because some people they were trying to reach were illiterate and couldn’t read the newspaper, it was necessary to tell stories visually, so that people could learn about the issues through the pictures, and maybe even put the clippings on their walls or paste them around the neighborhood as posters. The work was not about art. It was about raising political awareness.
By the time I approached him in the early 2000s, Emory was not so active as an artist. All the social movements had come crashing down because of neoliberalism, because of the backlash against political radicals and all that. Many underground and even mainstream newspapers had disappeared, so he knew his work was in danger of disappearing with them, and the whole Panther movement itself was in danger of disappearing. He realized that young people would not be able to learn about it if he did not preserve it. That’s why he agreed to do the book and to show his work in the museum context.
Then I think when he saw how much interest there was in his work, and how important it was for people to learn about it and the history of the Black Panthers, he realized that he should continue to show it. When he was included in the Biennale of Sydney in 2008, he reconnected with the Aboriginal civil rights movement in Australia, and since then he’s made and remade connections all across the world, teaching young activists in different places from New Zealand to Africa, Europe, Asia and of course in the US. It’s reignited his work. Some of it is in museums, but mainly it’s still in communities. For example, he spent a month in Chiapas working with the Zapatistas painting murals in their schools and community buildings.
ART iT: I remember seeing Emory’s work in Sydney, where the theme was “Revolutions: Forms That Turn.” I think the work and its depictions of state violence have taken on new relevance in the wake of Black Lives Matter.
SD: One of the things about that time period is that it was war. The Panthers were an armed, revolutionary organization. They wouldn’t start a gunfight, but if the police shot first, they would shoot back. At the time, people thought they could actually win a shooting war with the police. Of course, many of them were battle-hardened Vietnam War vets with military experience. Now people know they can’t win a shooting war with the police, and that it would be insane to try. You have to use different tactics and strategies, and I think Black Lives Matter is amazing in the way the movement has learned from history, from revolutionary groups like the Panthers and others. On the other hand, BLM is also of this moment. For example, there are many different organizers in different places in the movement, which I think is fantastic – local control. The Panthers were a very hierarchical military-style organization. Everybody had a rank and they followed the rules, not unlike the police and military they were fighting. Now there’s a different way of working and organizing. The people in leadership positions in BLM are showing a way forward that’s really hopeful.
ART iT: How do you feel when you bring works that deal with specifically American issues to other countries? As you’ve exhibited around the world, have you seen different responses to your work?
SD: When I first started exhibiting in Europe, I found that a lot of Europeans knew more about US history than Americans did. I don’t know if that’s still true. It may be. The work I’m showing here in Japan began about a year and a half ago with an exhibition at Blum & Poe in Tokyo. It was an attempt to make work that could reflect on the existing relationship between the US and Japan. Perry’s opening up of Japan to international trade is such an important moment in world history, and certainly one of the most important of the modern period. Japan’s response was just incredible, both in terms of the country’s modernization and the leaders’ understanding of how one had to operate in the world then: if you wanted to survive, you had to become an imperial power. Within 50 years, they were able to destroy the Russian Empire, a centuries-old European power! It’s stunning to think about how quickly that was accomplished.
I’m sure most people in Japan know this already, so in a way maybe the work is more for an American audience in the end. But of course in the US nobody particularly cares. I mean, there are nodes where people would be interested in and understand it more – for example, in Boston there is more of an awareness of how important China, Korea and Japan are to American history, and the Museum of Fine Arts has one of the largest collections of Asian art in the world. My experience has been that people on the West Coast are less interested. Not knowing is a kind of repression – even though there was huge Chinese immigration to “conquer” the west and build the railroads in the 19th century, and significant Japanese immigration followed by the internment camps during World War II, while the Korean community is one of the fastest growing the region. The art world doesn’t pay much attention to it. The Pacific Rim is not seen as relevant. It seems that the West Coast mainly looks to New York and Europe, as opposed to its own neighborhood. It’s frustrating when you consider that we are closer to Japan, China and the Philippines than to Europe.
Above: The Commodore’s Dream (2017), model ships, 59.1 x 134 x 27.9 cm. Below: Proposal for a Map of the World (Asian-African Conference, Bandung, Indonesia, 1955) (2015), intaglio print with silkscreen, 119.8 x 147.6 cm in frame.
ART iT: One theme that recurs in your work is displacement. You made a series of “displaced signs” by taking slogans from archival images of protests and putting them in new contexts, while Proposal for White and Indian Dead Monument Transpositions, Washington, DC shows how changing its location also changes what something says.
SD: Yes, changing the context, changing the location, changing the time are really effective ways of raising awareness about things that we might take for granted in our societies. Putting things in a new place or changing the time frame from a historical to a contemporary setting can change the way we think about them. On the other hand, Scaffold is an example of what can go wrong when you’re not altogether aware of the situation you’re displacing into. In a way, that was a displacement that brought the object back to its original place or context, which is interesting to think about in terms of negative results.
ART iT: Is displacement or transposition also a way to make ideology visible?
SD: I hope so. I suppose it’s not exactly a use of displacement, but the scroll prints here in Yokohama do something similar by creating a comparative relationship between the American and Japanese representations of Perry’s visit. It’s about setting up a comparison between two things or two viewpoints of the same thing. Even in The Commodore’s Dream (2017), with the model of the black ship on top of the contemporary container ship, I was putting into comparison Perry’s historical voyage here, which was about international trade, with the situation we have today of globalization. The idea was to bring history into the present, and of course to show that the present always carries history, which can never be unloaded. Maybe that’s where the poetic dimension is. I’m very interested in the political dimension of art, but I’m also interested in the aesthetic dimension. The thing that art does that nothing else can do is that it gives you a new way of looking at the world. It gives you some pleasure, some surprise, the poetic, the unexpected – whatever you want to call it – that makes it art. It’s not political action, it’s not journalism, it’s not reporting. It’s something else. And finding that space where the expected becomes unexpected is what makes it work.
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Sam Durant: The Manifest Destiny of Borrowed Scenery