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January 1, 2001

Q & A with Fine Arts Gallery Staff on "Fred Wilson: Objects and Installations," now on view

Insights recently spoke with Curator Maurice Berger and Director of Programs Symmes Gardner about the Fine Arts Gallery's current exhibition. NOTE: Fred Wilson will present a free lecture on Thursday, November 8 at 7:30 p.m. in Lecture Hall V, Engineering/Computer Science Building. For more information call (410) 455-3188.

1. Can you provide an introduction to Fred Wilson's work?

MB: Wilson's work comes out of that aspect of contemporary art that explores and questions the institutions that define and evaluate art. In other words, Wilson's work is self-reflexive to the art world itself, examining the belief systems and biases of the museum and the art gallery.

Over the past decade, Wilson has created installations that reconfigure the permanent collections of museums to reveal the inherent prejudices of museum collecting and patronage. Ironically, he does not pick the museums that are his subject; they choose him. After a lengthy period of residency and study in these institutions, Wilson creates "mock" installations, into which he places provocative and beautifully rendered objects. These installations explore the question of how the museum consciously or unconsciously perpetuates racist beliefs and behavior. If social justice is Wilson's ultimate subject, the museum itself becomes his medium, from the use of meticulously fabricated objects to the careful selection of wall colors, lighting, display cases and even wall labels.

Sometimes the artist reconfigures and supplements the collection of an actual museum, as in his extraordinary installation, "Mining The Museum," commissioned by the Maryland Historical Society in 1992. Other times he creates gallery installations that imitate the look and sensibility of the museum. In the end, Wilson's aesthetic commentaries reach across a wide conceptual expanse, from Egyptian and classical sculpture to African-American memorabilia, primitive painting, and the uniforms worn by the often black guards charged with the task of keeping American museums safe and secure.

For the exhibition, "Fred Wilson: Objects and Installations, 1979-2000" I have selected more than 100 objects, each configured to re-create sections of Wilson's original installations. Additionally, the gallery will soon install an interactive CD that will allow visitors to make a virtual "visit" to any of Wilson's earlier installations.

2. Maurice, describe one or two of your favorite installations in the show.

This question is always difficult, especially when I've organized a retrospective. It's Wilson's overall brilliance that led me to curate this exhibition in the first place. To select one work is a little bit like selecting a favorite child. I must confess, however, that one piece has always had a great effect on me-Cabinet Making: 1820-1960, a work that was originally part of Wilson's 1992 installation, "Mining The Museum."

The work is simple, even elegant in design--an arc of four Victorian easy chairs grouped around a nineteenth-century wooden whipping post, like seats in atheater facing a lone actor. The contrast between the chairs and the post could not be more stark: rich, ornamental detail versus unforgiving austerity, the promise of plush comfort versus the threat of pain and suffering, an air of upper-class gentility versus the suggestion of lower-class violation. Taken together, these objects appear to be in conversation with each other, counterpoising signifiers of privilege and oppression that rarely, if ever, share the same page in historical narratives or the same space in museums. Like all of Wilson's objects and installations, Cabinet Making animates history in ways that give it new meaning and relevance.

As I write in my curatorial essay for the catalog of the retrospective: "Gazing into [Cabinet Making] provocative rearrangement of artifacts of the past, we are invited to imagine the absent bodies who might have occupied these chairs and post: the disobedient African slaves and petty criminals receiving their "rightful" punishment, the elegantly attired Victorian ladies and gentlemen who, like the museums that collect and exhibit their objects of "high" culture, tend to avoid discussion of such abject souls. Rather than providing definitive answers, Cabinet Making poses difficult, even unanswerable questions: Who were the mostly unknown people, African slaves as well as convicts of all colors, who suffered the indignities of a whipping post that remained in use in Maryland until the late 1930s? To what extent were the wealthy people who owned these chairs implicated in the culture of oppression and retribution represented by the post? These questions, in turn, lead to more self-conscious ones: Why do history museums celebrate the triumphs and ingenuity of white, upper-class people but often ignore the stories of their intolerance? Why are these institutions more likely to display elegant furniture than instruments of torture, even though the latter may reveal deeper truths about the society at large?"

When I first encountered the piece in 1992, I was actually moved to tears. The work possesses an immediacy and poignance that is rare in contemporary art. It made me think just as powerfully as it made me cry. That's saying a lot for a work of art in an age as cynical as ours.

3. Given the events of September 11 and the current war on terrorism, does Wilson's work take on an even more important meaning?

MB: Wilson's work is both humanistic and profoundly moving. Over and over again, his installations allegorize the sense of absence and loss that permeates the modern museum-the loss of African-American artifacts and history due to the neglect of curators who have most often devalued or ignored the work of people of color, the absence of the black body and mind in exhibitions that proudly proclaim the "spirit" of America but believe that only whiteness matters.

Wilson's work reminds us of the power of art to delve deeply into the human psyche and soul and of its potential to challenge cultural norms and even to help us heal. A number of writers have recently remarked that is our nation's artists who will play one of the most important roles in leading us out of the sorrow and anxiety created by the events of September 11. It is socially oriented artists like Fred Wilson-and their uncompromising view of reality and imperative to correct wrongs and engender healing-who will lead the way. I invite the UMBC community to spend time with Wilson's powerful work and to be edified and moved by the experience.

4. Describe the educational component of the show.

SG: The Fine Arts Gallery is fortunate to draw upon the experience and energy of one of its graduate assistants in the design and organization of its educational outreach initiative for "Fred Wilson: Objects and Installations, 1979 - 2000." Imaging and digital arts student Bea Bufrahi, who also worked as an undergraduate intern in the gallery and for the Contemporary Museum, has brought together a rich and diverse offering of educational experiences which focus on museums and their recent collaborations with living artists.

Students from Middle River High School, City College, Catonsville High School andMcDonogh School will have the opportunity to dialogue with museum educators from the Walters Art Museum, the Contemporary Museum and the Maryland Historical Society, and explore how museums are rethinking their collections and how the public interprets them. Special attention will be paid to the Fred Wilson's historic 1993 collaboration with the Contemporary Museum and the Maryland Historical Society in creating the exhibition "Mining the Museum" presented at the Maryland Historical Society. Students will also be given access to the current collaboration project between the Walters Art Museum and the Contemporary Museum whichfeatures the artist Dennis Adams, who is re-interpreting the Walters Art Museum's permanent collection through the re-fabrication and re-installation of sculptural artifacts and site specific performance.

Multi-site visits to all three institutions will be accompanied by guided tours of the Fred Wilson exhibition at UMBC as well as intensive workshops held at all four schools which allow students to engage in group critiques of their museum and gallery experiences and ultimately create their own artworks which actively address the issues of presentation and interpretation.

The Fine Arts Gallery will host a student exhibition of works created from this initiative in the Department of Visual Art's Hallway Gallery during the month of December. The opening reception for this event will take place on Wednesday,December 5 from 1 to 4:30 p.m.

5. Why did the gallery feel it was important to present this retrospective?

SG: Since 1993, the Fine Arts Gallery has organized and presented exhibition projects which have focused specifically on the issues of race and gender. Exhibitions such as "Ciphers of Identity" (1993), "Notes in Time" (1995), "Kate Millett, Sculptor: The First 38 Years" (1996), "Minimal Politics" (1997) and "Adrian Piper" (1999) have explored the cultural impulses underlying these issues. "Fred Wilson: Objects and Installations, 1979 - 2000" continues in this tradition by examining the artwork and installations of this influential artist who challenges the culture of the museum as well as society's identification with it.

Maurice Berger is a senior fellow at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics of the New School University in New York and curator of the Fine Arts Gallery at UMBC. He is the author of six books, including the critically acclaimed White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999), which was named as a finalist for the 2000 Horace Mann Bond Book Award of Harvard University and is being adapted as a television documentary for PBS. His essays have appeared in many journals and newspapers, including Artforum, Art in America, The New York Times, The Village Voice, October, Wired and The Los Angeles Times. He has taught and lectured at such institutions as Hunter College, Yale University, Maryland Institute College of Art, DIA Center for the Arts, Whitney Museum of American Art, the Independent Study Program (ISP) of the Whitney Museum and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. He has served as curator or catalog essayist for many institutions, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, Guggenheim Museum, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Yale University Art Gallery, Grey Art Gallery, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, The Studio Museum in Harlem, Santa Monica Museum of Art and The Jewish Museum, New York.

Symmes Gardner is director of programs for the Fine Arts Gallery. Since the gallery's inception in 1989, he has been responsible for the organization and presentation of over sixty exhibition projects including "Ciphers of Identity," "Notes in Time: Nancy Spero and Leon Golub," "Kate Millett, Sculptor: The First Thirty Eight Years," "Minimal Politics," "Adrian Piper: A Retrospective," and currently "Fred Wilson: Objects and Installations, 1979 - 2000." Under his direction the gallery has organized eight traveling exhibition projects which have been presented in 25 museums and contemporary art spaces throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Before coming to UMBC, he worked in the Exhibitions Departments on the National Gallery of Art and Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

Posted by dwinds1 at January 1, 2001 12:00 AM