Fred Wilson is a fascinating man. A little under six foot with an owl face, full beard, gray hair and a kind yet mischievous twinkle clearly visible from the last row in the Nasher Museum auditorium, Fred Wilson’s Semans Lecture Tuesday night helped breathe new life into a jet lagged brain. Wilson’s simple idea is context matters.
Wilson, a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient and Whitney Museum Trustee, uses conceptual art to re-imagine museum space, display and legitimacy. Mr. Wilson turns museum “best practices” on their head exposing hidden virtues, values, prejudices, truths and deceits. Mr. Wilson generously spent several hours explaining his art and process. Starting with an installation in the Bronx, Mr. Wilson changed attributes and characteristics of art’s display. His work with the Maryland Historical Society was a clear highlight in a lecture full of funny interesting moments.
Image the Maryland Historical Society. Could there be a stuffier context for Mr. Wilson’s “museum mining”? Mr. Wilson’s personal ambivalence is why he spent a year re-installing a complete floor within the Historical Society. Ambivalence has many dimensions. Mr. Wilson is an African American New Yorker. He felt like a stranger in a strange land visiting the Maryland Historical Society secretly interviewing to see if he wanted to mine their museum. All art requires courage. Mr. Wilson deserves attention and kudos for turning directly into discomfort. The Maryland Historical society deserves similar reward for offering their treasures for recontextualization, some of which was bound to be less than flattering. “Surely the doll house is sacrosanct,” one exasperated museum employee said. It was not.
Mr. Wilson’s Museum Mining
Fred Wilson creates installations and juxtapositions often using a museum’s existing art, sculpture and artifacts. “I am like Rod Serling controlling your TV set,” Mr. Wilson explained. Mr. Wilson’s genius uses a museum’s “treasures” to tell a different story by changing almost nothing. “Museums always put things out like everything is the same,” he explained. Fred Wilson doesn’t treat everything the same, his subtle changes to display and treatment creates HUGE changes for museum patrons altering everything on view and everyone viewing.
What happens when a slave shackle is included innocently in the middle of eighteenth century fine silver? Mr. Wilson isn’t shocking simply for the sake of it. Changing context changes all AND much of context’s hidden hypnosis comes forward. Mr. Wilson helps us see the unseen. “Things in a museum’s storage can tell you even more than what is on view,” Mr. Wilson said. I experienced this truth. I was granted an extensive tour of the Vassar Museum’s storage as an undergraduate writing about art for my friend Alex Agnew’s upstart paper The Syllabus. For every item on display thousands sat in storage. Display, I understood standing surrounded by amazing unseen art, is editing as much as anything.
Museum guards are unseen, edited out of our active view. Mr. Wilson was a museum guard after graduation at the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His seen yet unseen status as guard helped him think about deeper meanings associated with our tendency to selectively see. One favorite story Tuesday night was when Mr. Wilson warned Whitney museum staff he would create his most recent work “in costume.”
“I don’t know if they thought I would show up in a bunny suit or what, but I put on my guard uniform, stood by a sign and disappeared to staff members I just lunched with. I loved the reaction of patrons as I led Whitney staff through the exhibit in my guard uniform,” Mr. Wilson said of his Whitney experience.Questioning Museums
Mr. Wilson’s lecture and art exposes a well kept museum secret. Museums use space and real or perceived legitimacy to change history, art and us. Mr. Wilson’s not so hidden question is why is a museum’s a priori presentation correct. Museums interpret, clean up and modify. Museums have a point of view.
All too often, Mr. Wilson proposes, a museum’s view is created reflexively from existing theories, prejudices and petty power brokering. Who died and made Alfred Barr (MoMA’s founder), Thomas Hoving (famous Metropolitan Museum of Art Director) and Thomas Krens (Guggenheim expansionist Director) God? Mr. Wilson doesn’t cast aspersions but he does connect dots. Museums, even those dedicated to questioning, often become sources of hidden self-perpetuating context.
Listening to Mr. Wilson I thought of several supporting thinkers: writer Malcolm Gladwell, Black Swan author Nassim Nicholas Taleb and physicist Werner Heisenberg.
Heisenberg’s and Mr. Wilson’s Uncertainty Principle
Heisenberg noted the “observer effect”. The act of observing something changes it. In physics it is impossible to know a particle’s position and momentum. Observation actively exerts influence as Mr. Wilson’s upside down museum displays show. Mr. Wilson's observer effect is how we are changed by his contextual tinkering.
Taleb’s And Mr. Wilson’s Black Swan Theory
Taleb’s influential book The Black Swan proves how poor supposed “experts” forecast the future. Humans, Taleb points out, tend to work within degrees of some anchor. Anchors can be historical, cultural or purely random. Anchoring as a psychological phenomenon is also widely covered by Duke’s behavioral economics professor Dan Ariely’s in his increasingly well known marketing book Predictably Irrational: The hidden forces that shape our decisions. What Taleb, Ariely and Wilson show is how powerful self perpetuating anchors can become. Museums gather around a collective hearth adopting “best practices” that may legitimize accidental, cultural or hidden aesthetic.
Malcolm Gladwell’s and Mr. Wilson’s Tipping Point Outliers
Gladwell’s Tipping Point may explain how anchors perpetuate, how anchors move through space and time like viruses. Museums, Mr. Wilson points out, “acquire” they don’t “steal”. Museums are good, enlightened, and fair not prejudiced, petty and trite. Gladwell points out how easy some cultural ideas transfer becoming sticky quickly seen as truth. Mr. Wilson’s slave shackle and other seen / unseen racist museum examples point to how easy viral transmission of bad ideas can be. Anchors once set can be very hard to reset or even see.
Gladwell’s Outliers suggests how random super success can be. Gladwell doesn’t deny hard work’s value. He understands the need for 10,000 hours of work before competence and insight replace naïve trust. Gladwell and Mr. Wilson point out how easy the path is for some and how random the reasons including when and where one is born. The tail to that coin’s head is how hard a path others have for those same random reasons. Gladwell advocates more equitable distribution. One immediate reaction to Mr. Wilson's art is a similar feeling.
Don’t Know What We Don’t Know
Mr. Wilson’s primary gift may be sharing a secret. When Mr. Wilson “mines a museum” he displays often hidden, automatic and self perpetuating context. Mr. Wilson’s chiaroscuro ability to see invisible mores helps us see hidden selves. We may trust museums less after walking one of Mr. Wilson’s installations, but we understand art and life better.
Thanks to the Semans Family
A member of the family who helped make Mr. Wilson’s lecture possible was in the audience. Funding and providing a platform for an artist who questions art’s tenets is a brave act. Thanks to the Semans family and Nasher Museum of Art staff for continued courage and excellence (read my review of their recent Picasso and the Allure of Language exhibition). I spent the week before Mr. Wilson’s lecture at a great museum, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, a museum I love (read my review of the Avedon exhibit). Duke’s Museum of Art isn’t as big, but I would bet the over on Nasher’s staff expertise and creativity against any museum. The Nasher Museum of Art at Duke is a Durham and national treasure.