Fred Wilson in the Hood: An Interview
Over the past decade, the American artist Fred Wilson has delivered refreshingly critical views on art and its sheltering institution, the museum. Wilson is best known for rearranging a museum's permanent collection into unusual displays of seemingly disparate objects. These compelling, site-specific installations draw upon standard curatorial practices to tease out eyeopening connections between objects, people, places, and local or national histories. In his groundbreaking 1992 exhibition Mining the Museum at the Maryland Historical Society, for example, Wilson uncovered suppressed narratives about racial and cultural attitudes undermined by the politics of inclusion, exclusion, and erasure; his poignant piece Cabinet Making, 1820-1960, for example, featured four elegant parlor chairs facing a cruciform whipping post that had been used in a Maryland jail. Wilson's gallery installations often mimic museum interiors as well; in Friendly Natives he displayed four skeletons laid out in glass cases and labeled "Someone's Sister," "Someone's Mother," and so on to contest popular ethnographic modes of representing marginalized peoples and cultures.
Born in 1954 in the Bronx of African American, Cherokee, European, and Caribbean descent, Wilson mesmerizes his audiences with his undeniable charm, astute wit, and ingenuity. Based in New York City, Wilson has worked with museums and collections around the world. This past summer, he came to the Hood Museum of Art to develop an exhibition using the museum's permanent collections. In the early stages of this project, Barbara Thompson, Curator of African, Oceanic, and Native American Collections, asked the artist about his interest in the Hood's collections. The larger conversations from which these excerpts are taken will be published in early February in the exhibition's post-production catalogue.
Barbara Thompson: You have been quoted as saying that your work concerns "relationships and what's really important in life." What kinds of relationships do you hope to develop at the Hood Museum of Art and Dartmouth College and how does this fit into what is important in your life?
Fred Wilson: Each museum, not to mention region of the country and the world, has a very specific "personality" and viewpoint. This always affects what art and artifacts I choose to use in an installation and what I do with them. The collection at the Hood uniquely represents an American history that reflects events at Dartmouth, but also the northeast in general. In addition to this, it mirrors our national identity, both past and present. It gives me a sense of what was important to the founding fathers before our country was born. The collecting habits of the museum over the last century also create an image of what the museum, and by extension its society, believes should be important today. Because the collection is as varied as it is deep, I feel a freedom to create a complex image, one devoid of answers. However, I do hope it will open up a myriad of questions.
BT: In 2003 you were chosen to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, in which you created a site-specific exhibition that addressed the centuries-long erasure of the presence of Africans and Moors from Venetian history and art history. In that project, your approach to place and history was vital to the success of the exhibition. How does the Hood's longstanding history as an academic institution at a New England college offer you prospects different from those of other museums or collections?
FW: In the other college museums that I have "mined," there was very little in the collection that got at the heart of the college and its history. This is not the case with the Hood and Dartmouth. Because their histories are intertwined and the collections reflect that, my work at the Hood will undoubtedly contain aspects of Dartmouth history as well, even though I am not attempting to research Dartmouth itself. Whether I get at some Dartmouth "truths" remains to be seen.
BT: What specifically interests you about doing a project with the collections at the Hood?
FW: It is the first time I have worked with a quintessential northeast American collection in the northeastern museum. Even though it is not a history museum, aspects of place and history run through the collection and the local environs. I think those aspects are important to look at if I am to understand where I am and make something different from what I've done before.
BT: For over a decade now, you have been working with other peoples' collections and the veiled aspects of their histories. What about Fred Wilson the collector?
FW: I collect . . . everything! Or I used to. I have always been interested in the meaning of things. I have always felt that the things humans produce are generally either misunderstood, not fully understood, or totally ignored. I have collected everything from contemporary art to graphically interesting gum wrappers from South Africa. I actually have to keep it in check. For about ten years now I have reduced my collecting to two specific things, world globes and large ceramic domestic pottery pieces from countries and regions not historically engaged in empire building (the "ethnographic" areas of the world, as most would put it).
I have a great love of the world and the people and cultures in it. My family is a combination of folks from various continents, countries, and regions. I was raised to believe that the global family is my family, and in many respects it is. I love the subtle variations in the representation of our planet. I also think I am attracted to the sphere; it is a calming form for me. My ceramic pots are usually spherical. While I use globes over and over again in my art, I have only recently used pottery. I plan to focus on it in the near future. I also am a bookaholic, but that is another story!
BT: At this time, you have only seen a very small part of the museum's collections. What objects have been particularly enticing to you so far?
FW: I have been thrilled with what I have found in your collection. The busts of "race types" and of dear ole Daniel [Webster] (see illustration) are surely to figure prominently in my exhibition. I remember I liked the Ripley's [Believe It or Not] signs and the portraits of Indians. Without being too specific (because at this point things could still change radically), I can say that I am always drawn to sculpture, particularly figurative sculpture. I also believe I will use some items that haven't been exhibited in the museum in a very long time. I do like to keep what I'm doing a secret until the opening. I like the element of surprise. When I have the opportunity I use it as a way to break down, or at least look at, received notions.
--Barbara ThompsonCurator of African, Oceanic, and Native American Collections
Fred Wilson's site-specific installation, which is on view October 4-December 11, culminates the museum's yearlong celebration of its twentieth anniversary in the Charles Moore building. This exhibition was organized by the Hood Museum of Art and is generously funded in part by a grant from the LEF Foundation and by the William B. Jaffe and Evelyn A. Hall Fund and the George O. Southwick 1957 Memorial Fund.
Image: Francis Alexander, American, 1800-1880, Daniel Webster (Black Dan) (1782-1852), Class of 1801, 1835 , oil on canvas. Gift of Dr. George C. Shattuck, Class of 1803