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After Protests from Native American Community, Walker Art Center Will Remove Public Sculpture

Sam Durant’s outdoor installation “Scaffold” references the US Army’s mass execution of 38 Dakota men in Minnesota in 1862.

A view of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden with Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen's “Spoonbridge and Cherry” (1985–88) at right and Sam Durant's "Scaffold" (2012) at left (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
A view of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden with Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s “Spoonbridge and Cherry” (1985–88) at right and Sam Durant’s “Scaffold” (2012) at left (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

MINNEAPOLIS — Less than a week before the Walker Art Center was scheduled to open its newly renovated sculpture garden, it announced that one of the major new works added to the park will be removed.

The sculpture in question, “Scaffold” (2012) by Los Angeles-based artist Sam Durant, is a giant structure made of steel and wood, placed adjacent in the park to “Spoonbridge and Cherry” (1985–88) by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. Originally created for Documenta in 2012 in Kassel, Germany, the piece had been installed at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, a partnership between the museum and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, for more than a month, but it wasn’t until late last week that it became the subject of controversy.

On Friday afternoon, the Walker’s Director, Olga Viso, posted an open letter on the museum’s website saying that she didn’t anticipate how the work would be received in Minnesota, especially by Native audiences. “Scaffold,” she wrote, depicts seven different historical gallows used in hangings sanctioned by the US government between 1859 and 2006. One of the gallows the piece represents was used to hang 38 Native men in Mankato, Minnesota at the end of the US-Dakota War of 1862, the largest mass execution in the history of the United States.

Social media and local news erupted after Viso’s letter was posted. Politicians, leaders of several arts organizations, Native American artists, and tribal groups, including Minnesota’s Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, condemned the work for several reasons. Critics said the piece was problematic because it was made by a non-native artist, that it is triggering historical pain — especially given that the Walker sits on land once used by the Dakota people — and that a public park next to whimsical sculptures depicting a giant cherry and a large blue rooster is not an appropriate place for a memorial. Criticism also centered on the aesthetic of the piece itself, which turns the forms of historical hanging gallows into something that looks like a children’s jungle gym.

Protest signs on the fence near Sam Durant's "Scaffold" (2012) in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden
A protest sign on the fence near Sam Durant’s “Scaffold” (2012) in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden

Protests erupted by Friday evening, and signs were placed on the fence outside of the park demanding the sculpture be taken down. On Saturday morning, Graci Horne, a young Dakota activist, artist, and curator, wrote a letter on behalf of a group of Dakota elders calling for a peaceful, prayerful occupation of the park.

On Saturday afternoon, the Walker released a second statement by Viso in which she said that it will take the sculpture down, and will work with the Dakota community to decide what will become of “Scaffold.” The statement didn’t give a timeline for the sculpture’s removal, but said that Durant, representatives of the Walker, and Traditional Spiritual Dakota Elders will meet to discuss its fate on the morning of Wednesday, May 31.

“It has been my belief that white artists need to address issues of white supremacy and its institutional manifestations,” Durant said today in a statement addressed to the Dakota community. “However, your protests have shown me that I made a grave miscalculation in how my work can be received by those in a particular community. In focusing on my position as a white artist making work for that audience I failed to understand what the inclusion of the Dakota 38 in the sculpture could mean for Dakota people.” Durant went on to apologize for his thoughtlessness: “I should have reached out to the Dakota community the moment I knew that the sculpture would be exhibited at the Walker Art Center in proximity to Mankato.”

A Towering Work

Standing on the edge of the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge, which crosses Highway 94 between the sculpture garden and Loring Park, you can get a view of Durant’s work, and a sense of how it interacts with other pieces in the park. In the foreground you see Oldenberg and van Bruggen’s “Spoonbridge and Cherry,” the cheerful modern sculpture that has become a symbol of Minneapolis. Behind it stand the gallows.

“Scaffold” is made up of a platform with several staircases leading up to it. There are posts around the sides and, in the center, a very tall wooden pole that recalls historical images of the Dakota 38 hanging structure. It emits an ominous, menacing aura, made even more disturbing by its simultaneous evocation of a children’s playground.

In a now-deleted description on Durant’s website (still available via this link), he described the work as a commentary on the death penalty. “The gallows used in the sculpture represent a range of executions, some nearly iconic, beginning with John Brown in 1859 and culminating in the scaffold used in Saddam Hussein’s hanging in 2006,” he wrote. “There is no intention of directly equating the victims of the various executions or of making equivalencies between the activities that led to their deaths. The only consistency implied in the project is that they are all State sanctioned executions.”

“When I first saw it, I had this huge anxious feeling and broke down in tears,” says Kate Beane, a Dakota woman who works as a community liaison for the Minnesota Historical Society. “I don’t think the Walker or the artist took into consideration what kind of impact a structure like that would have on a community of people who have been impacted by historical trauma.”

For Beane, seeing the work was traumatic, especially as she was there with her child. She also felt disappointment, because so much of her work is about building awareness about Dakota history. “We do this over and over and over again,” she said. “We get a lot of backlash about it and it’s tiring work. And then something like this still happens.”

Protest signs on the fence near Sam Durant's "Scaffold" (2012) in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden
Protest signs on the fence near Sam Durant’s “Scaffold” (2012) in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden

Mona Smith, a Dakota media artist, described herself trembling from head to toe when she learned about the sculpture. “It’s never fun to learn again and again about the successful erasure of Dakota people and Minnesota history,” she said. “Any Dakota person would have suggested the pain triggered by this work … . Perhaps next year they’d like to do a sculpture on the holocaust ovens?”

Sheldon Wolfchild, a Dakota filmmaker and descendant of Medicine Bottle — who was hung at Fort Snelling after the 38 in Mankato were killed — agreed that the piece is traumatic and inappropriate for a public park. “Generational trauma comes directly back into yourself and what our young people face,” he says. “We have the highest suicide rate for our young people. What are our young children going to say when they see that scaffold? They have no other place to go but to think about killing themselves.”

Sam Wounded Knee, a Dakota from Crow Creek, said the work is disrespectful. “It makes you cry to walk up the stairs to see that,” he said. As soon as he heard about the sculpture on Friday, he got in his car and went to the sculpture garden. “I had to see it myself,” he said. Speaking before the Walker’s announcement that the sculpture would be removed, Wounded Knee said that removal was the only option. “There’s no, ‘we’ll do this better or do that better next time,’” he said. “No — you do it now, or we’ll do it for you. Because wood’s flammable.”

A Career of Work About Race and Genocide

“Scaffold” isn’t the first piece Durant has made touching on Native people’s trauma. He’s been making work about white supremacy and the dark chapters of US history — particularly as it has affected Native people and African Americans — for more than a decade.

His 2002 sculpture, “Upside Down: Pastoral Scene”, for example, recalls America’s history of lynchings. It depicts an upturned tree and is accompanied by a soundtrack that includes Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and Public Enemy’s “Fear of a Black Planet.”

In 2003, at the Walker Art Center, Durant created “Garden Project” in collaboration with students from Four Directions and Heart of the Earth, two charter high schools serving Native Americans. That work also featured an upturned tree, and Durant included audio tracks that mixed pow-wow recordings with students “rapping, telling stories, and reading — in English, Ojibwe, and Lakota — about contemporary themes (AIDS, homelessness, teen pregnancy, basketball) and historical issues (the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee),” according to a description on the Walker’s website.

In 2005, Durant created “Proposal for White and Indian Dead Monument Transpositions, Washington DC,” which reproduced monuments around the country commemorating Native American massacres. According to a description of “Proposal” from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which acquired the work for its collection, Durant suggested that the monuments should be relocated and shown together on the National Mall.

More recently, Durant’s work has taken on white supremacy more directly. Since 2008 he has made a series of works that literally read “End White Supremacy.” He has also made work that directly addresses being a white ally. “We need to learn from the people we’ve been oppressing,” he told the Bay State Banner last year.

A Lack of Community Engagement

However noble their intentions may have been, Durant and the Walker failed to do their due diligence regarding community engagement, said Anishinaabe artist and curator Andrea Carlson.

“Why wouldn’t an artist or curator want to research their subject?” she asked. “Why willfully exclude them? Even if it means having to respectfully reach out to people, perhaps compensating them for their time and expertise. Own your curatorial rigor by fearlessly talking to people.”

Asked why the Native community wasn’t engaged in the curation of Durant’s piece, Viso told Hyperallergic:

Due to the complex make-up of ‘Scaffold’ as the composite of 7 discreet scaffolds, the Walker did not realize how literally the work emulates the gallows structure that was used in this atrocity. As such, we failed to readily prepare for the impact of the work upon the Dakota community in advance of this work’s siting.

Whose Story?

Graci Horne, the artist and curator who helped organize the occupation outside the park, added that Native people, and Dakota people in particular, don’t need non-Natives to tell their stories for them. “What’s happening with ‘Scaffold’ is that we are waking up to the fact that we need our own Native people to represent our own Native art,” she said. As a curator, Horne has worked with the Walker and other large art institutions in the Twin Cities. “I always find myself as the only Native voice at the table and this is concerning to me,” she said. “Most of these institutions, not just in Minnesota, but all over the United States, have non-Native representation about our history. That’s not right.”

Protest signs on the fence near Sam Durant's "Scaffold" (2012) in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden
Protest signs on the fence near Sam Durant’s “Scaffold” (2012) in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden

The issue of the identity of the artist presenting work about a trauma that is not her or his own recalls the recent controversy around Dana Schultz’s painting of Emmet Till in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. Schutz was criticized for depicting a historic trauma and creating an abstracted portrait of Till’s corpse. Schutz’s work was partly criticized for seeking to represent African American trauma, which many people considered problematic coming from a white woman. Both controversies bring up questions about whether or not white artists can create work about the pain of communities they do not belong to, and whose voices should be elevated to speak about the atrocities of our history.

As for “Scaffold,” it remains to be seen how quickly the sculpture will be removed, what will be done with it, and what will eventually stand in its place. According to a statement by Rory Wakemup, director of Minneapolis’s All My Relations Gallery, which shows Native American art, the gallery will hold a meeting of Dakota elders tomorrow in anticipation of Wednesday morning’s meeting between elders and the Walker, the artist and his representatives, and members of the park board and municipal officials. In the meantime, the Walker has pushed back the grand reopening of the park to Saturday, June 10. The museum will release a public statement at 2pm on Wednesday, following the meeting.

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