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OBERLIN, Ohio — Artist Fred Wilson is known for working in two modes, broadly speaking. In one, he creates interventions in and rearrangements of the existing collections of arts institutions; in the other, he fabricates original works across a range of media. These two movements have long coexisted within the artist’s career, but never within the same institution, until now. In a nearly yearlong installation at the Allen Memorial Art Museum on Oberlin College’s campus, Wilson is showing a collection intervention, Wildfire Test Pit, side by side with a survey of original work, Black to the Powers of Ten.
The most direct and obvious link between the two exhibitions is the pair of statues that stands in the center of Powers of Ten. Titled “The Mete of the Muse” (2006), the work features a black sculpture and a white one, mimicking the composition and aesthetics of the statuary assembled for Wildfire. Here, the black body is an Egyptian god, and the white one is a European female form; the wall text characterizes them as “African figure” and “European figure,” respectively, though both were cast in bronze and finished with patina or paint. As in my previous analysis of Wildfire Test Pit, it’s useful to acknowledge that, in Wilson’s work, “black” and “white” have racial as well as chromatic associations. This fits with a major theme of Wilson’s oeuvre, which is showcased exhaustively in Black to the Powers of Ten: an examination of black identity and labor.
One cultural surrogate that Wilson employs in this consideration is Othello. The tragic Shakespearean character is the subject of a video installation, “Speak of Me as I Am” (2003), which juxtaposes footage from four opera and film adaptations of Othello and was originally created for the 2003 Venice Biennale. He’s also referenced in one of the artist’s elaborate glass mirrors, “I Saw Othello’s Visage in His Mind” (2013). Wilson’s revisiting of Othello as a touchstone suggests an identification with the character, reinforced by the mirror as a means of superimposing one’s own image over the work. Othello at once represents black power (he is king) and isolation (he is alone), as well as a stripping of black identity, since he is labeled in the play as a “Moor” — a kind of Middle Ages non-designation that obtusely refers to the Muslims of North Africa and the Iberian peninsula, but lacks any truly defined ethnic association.
Perhaps this vagueness (and the poetic license it affords) was part of the original motivation in dubbing Othello a Moor — much like Sacha Baron Cohen leverages the perceived cultural ambiguity of Kazakhstan to lend force to his racist caricature, Borat. Throughout Wilson’s work there is a palpable desire to strip away the obfuscation of biased history, to get down to the fundamentals in black and white. This is captured in a wall of canvases depicting 35 flags of African and African diaspora nations, rendered with only their graphic elements in black and white. This 2009 body of work hangs adjacent to a corollary installation of 35 wooden plaques that describe the flags of these nations and what their symbols and colors represent. As often as not, the colors of a given flag directly reference the colonizing influence of a European or Western nation.
Black glass has been a longstanding and recurring motif in Wilson’s art, triggered by his work in Venice, where he discovered an obscured history of black labor within the centuries-old Murano glassworks for which the region is famous. Forming a kind of visual segue between the 2D works and the glass pieces is the wall-mounted “Whether or Not” (2014), a cluster of shiny, black, blown-glass teardrops that rain across an angled wall between the flags and a series of mirrors.
Against this backdrop stand two vitrines, “Black Memory” (2005) and “Black Present” (2006). Their forms suggest something solemn and coffin-like, even before a deep look through the nearly opaque black glass of “Black Present” reveals an interred resin skeleton, surrounded by ink wells and oil cans (“Black Memory” contains similar objects, minus the skeleton). The visual obfuscation of these pieces is so complete as to defy documentation — the contents of “Black Memory” and “Black Present” cannot be photographed very successfully, their dense and reflective surfaces bouncing back only external surroundings.
This is the sting of Wilson’s works: their capacity to make the viewer utterly complicit. Standing before them, one cannot avoid one’s place in the systems that generate inequities between black and white. Whatever distance the viewer seeks to create, Wilson finds a way to collapse it, to bring reality back to face her. There is nowhere to hide within such stark aesthetics.
Fred Wilson: Black to the Powers of Ten continues at the Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College, 87 N Main Street, Oberlin, Ohio) through June 12. Fred Wilson: Wildfire Test Pit runs concurrently in an adjoining gallery.
Editor’s note: The Allen Memorial Art Museum paid for the author’s travel expenses.