MEXICO CITY — Sam Durant, the artist at the center of the explosive controversy over his installation at the Walker Art Center, “Scaffold” (2012), was in Mexico City this week to speak about his project which was met with intense protest. At the headquarters of the SOMA educational organization, the artist took responsibility and assumed a massive oversight by himself and the museum leading up to the installation of the work, which alludes to seven historical gallows used in hangings sanctioned by the US government between 1859 and 2006. Although the work had been exhibited extensively before landing in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, it took on a painful significance in the context of the American city with a large native community — one of the gallows refers to the one which hung Native men in the US-Dakota War of 1862 — and was removed. The controversy made clear the enormous disparity between “the art world” and everyday life in the streets of the United States, which Durant lamented during his talk.
Beginning the presentation, Durant asked that his lecture not be posted on social media, because, “right now I have a fairly negative view of social media.” Over the course of the controversy, the internet became the stage for a cascade of hate leveled against the artist and the museum from both sides of the debate, and the discussion was only sometimes productive. He pointed out that many of the Dakota protesters had acted as water protectors at Standing Rock, and still carried much of the pain from that historic protest with them after their camp was bulldozed and razed soon after the inauguration of Donald Trump. But what was challenging to stomach, he said, was the so-called “alt-right” that took to the internet to encourage white nationalists to attack the Dakota protesters, lauding the sculpture as a “trophy” of white supremacy.
White alt-righters drove around the sculpture park, shouting racist slurs and threats at the Native Americans who were occupying the grounds amid banners and picket signs calling for the work to be removed and destroyed. “No conversation, take it down,” read one banner, which Durant showed a picture of as an example of the intensely polarizing protest. The cultural and racial tensions brought to light by the sculpture threatened to boil over into real violence, and Durant realized “the sculpture would never be understood as I intended it to be,” as the controversy degraded into “waves of misinformation.”
The idea of “no conversation” — the absence of dialogue in lieu of an abundance of hateful rhetoric — was deeply troubling, he said, and “emblematic of the difficult position we’re in as a society.”
The intensity of the protest was unexpected, said Durant. The sculpture had toured Europe to major success, and he was excited for the opportunity to display the work in the United States, where he had always imagined it being exhibited. Although, he pointed to the Walker Art Center’s lack of community outreach before installing the sculpture, so community members had no context or information about the intended subject matter or discourse of the work.
Durant recalled that the Walker Art Center, a majority white institution, undertook outreach efforts with the African American community before a major Kara Walker exhibition in the same space. Why did it happen then and not for “Scaffold”? Local Dakota leaders weren’t contacted or involved in any way before the work was installed. As a result, the museum was subject to vitriolic attacks from both sides, accused of censorship and racism in one breath. Some protesters called for the firing of executive director Olga Viso, one of few women of color in a leadership position at a major American art institution, Durant pointed out. Were she to resign or be fired as a result of this controversy, the overall effect could be negative for representation of minority groups in the arts.
At the top of the patriarchal food chain, Durant, a straight, white male, alluded to the fact that he doesn’t necessarily have free reign over all subject matter or freedom to create whatever he chooses. His position is one of privilege. Which all begs the question: Who’s allowed to talk about what? Much of the discussion following his talk centered on this question without any answers.
By avoiding the representation of marginalized bodies, he always believed he was skirting the risk of recalling historical trauma, said Durant, unlike Dana Schutz and her controversial painting of Emmett Till in at this year’s Whitney Biennial, which he referenced. Now he says he realizes that abstract symbols can be just as powerful as objective images. “A lot of mistakes were made,” he said.
Now that the mediation between the artist, the museum, and tribal elders has taken place, and the controversy is over, we’re left wondering what it means. Ironically, perhaps appropriately, the artist became a symbol for the same power structures that he attempts to work against. The controversy surrounding “Scaffold” doesn’t only point to the failure of one artist or one museum, but to an institutionalized, systemic failure of representation — the “incredible disconnect between the art world and the rest of the world,” as Durant put it.
Sam Durant spoke at SOMA (Calle 13 #25, Col. San Pedro de los Pinos, Mexico City) on Wednesday, July 12.