Tyler Green
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Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

The very public debate over Fred Wilson’s Indy sculpture

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This morning I introduced the controversy in Indianapolis over a proposed Fred Wilson sculpture. Continuing from that post

The work Fred Wilson proposed for the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, E Pluribus Unum, takes a cue from Indianapolis’ huge downtown Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument (at right, image via Flickr user Phil King, and detail below via Flickr user OZinOH), a neo-classical enormity designed by German architect Bruno Schmitz and completed in 1901. One of the figures on Schmitz’s memorial is an ex-slave, as symbolized by the African-American man’s bare torso and the apparently recently broken chain and shackles. (The Col. Eli Lilly Civil War Museum is in the base of the memorial. It chronicles Indiana’s Civil War history.)

Wilson proposed to create a sculpture out of Indiana limestone that would isolate that figure, mostly remove the signifier of bondage and to slightly him. Into his figure’s outstretched arm Wilson would place a flag that represents the African Diaspora. Wilson’s sculpture would be visible from the existing memorial. (This excellent short video features Wilson presenting and explaining the project. The proposed flag is below.)

As I noted this morning, initial public reaction to Wilson’s artwork was muted. The Indianapolis Recorder, Indy’s black newspaper, published what was by all accounts a thorough, considered story on Wilson and his sculpture in early September. (The story is no longer online.) The story was apparently mild, but the reaction to it was not.

On Sept. 16, the Recorder published an inflammatory letter from former Indiana Public Schools teacher and board member Leroy Robinson. In his letter, Robinson excoriated the project. “[T]his is not the 19th century and the African-American community in Indianapolis does not need another ‘image’ in downtown Indianapolis to remind us of how downtrodden, beat down, hapless, and submissive we once may have been,” Robinson wrote. “We don’t need any more images of lawn jockeys, caricatures… no more buffoonery, no more shuckin’ and jiven’, and no more ape-ish looking monuments.” Along with the letter the Recorder ran a picture of a lawn jockey, which likely confused readers because the image was unrelated to anything Wilson has proposed.

“We’ve been working for four weeks to correct misinformation, to re-publish renderings,” Indianapolis Cultural Trail curator and public art project coordinator Mindy Taylor Ross told me on the phone last week.

Wilson understands Robinson’s position — he just disagrees with it. “Images are obviously at the heart of racism because we look different,” he told me, also in a phone conversation. “So the manipulation of images has been a part of the bone of contention for a long, long time in the African-American community because it’s been kind of controlled by others.”

Indianapolis’ African-American community seems eager to join the debate that Robinson’s letter started. (The Indianapolis Star has covered the dust-up, but in a somewhat odd, what’s-this-about manner.) The conflict came to a head last week at a community meeting held at Indianapolis’ Madame Walker Theater. Almost 300 people showed up to talk with Wilson and to debate his artwork. According to both Ross and Wilson, the overwhelming majority of the audience was interested in having a thoughtful discussion and a large majority of the audience was supportive of the work. Both thought that about a dozen people made dialogue difficult by regularly interrupting and initiating a ruckus.

“It was just one of those situations where there are hundreds of people there and the loudest voices get heard and everyone else gets drowned out,” Ross said. “After the letter to the paper, we looked at it as we’re kind of starting over again. It was the meeting at which we re-introduced Fred.”

After the sometimes contentious and out-of-control meeting at the Madame Walker Theater, Wilson went on the most important black radio program in Indianapolis, “Afternoons with Amos.” Wilson spent nearly an hour discussing his project with the host, Amos Brown, and dozens of callers. (Audio from the show is available here.) The overwhelming majority of the callers were in favor of the project. The discourse was polite, considered and substantive.

“We are not against you Mr. Fred Wilson, not whatsoever,” one caller said. “Nor are we against art, nor are we against the the cultural trail. But we’re against the use of another slave image in downtown Indianapolis. No other race or ethnicity is being depicted in their worst moment in American history on that trail. Once again, welcome to our city.”

Another caller: “At one point we were concerned about the Confederate flag flying over state buildings and now we’re concerned about an image of slavery being placed in front of our city’s buildings. I think it’s confusing and I wonder: What if someone wanted to place swastikas on the cultural trail as an image of expression? Or if someone wanted to place nooses around trees? Who decides what is appropriate and what is not appropriate?

“I don’t think this should be a popularity contest where [you have people saying] I like this and I like that… I think this is a little more serious, maybe too serious for a cultural trail. I think Mr. Wilson should get his commission and he should be paid to do this piece ,but maybe there would be a better venue. When you have a cultural trail and public art and none of the [other] artists [did something quite like this]… there were no white leaders called or focus groups around that art. They had to know that this piece would bring some controversy. So in talking about disparity, it’s very unfair for the African-American community to endure all this discussion and constant divisive meetings about this piece when no other ethnic group is faced with this. At a time when we could be spending our time on elections and millions of other things, we’re arguing about a slave downtown.”

I wasn’t at the Madame Walker Theater event, but I found listening to Brown and Wilson on the radio to be particularly instructive. (If I were teaching at an art school, I’d scrub this week’s lesson plan and play it for my class. Brown guided his guest and his callers through a super hour of radio.) It’s uncommon for artists and the non-art-world public to engage in such a direct manner, especially outside the context of an art museum lecture hall, so I asked Wilson what he thought of the openness of the conversation.

“Public art is different from art that ends up in museums or museum collections,” Wilson said. “It’s out there in public and people can interpret it in the way they will and often without any mediation, which is really great. But on the other hand, people are bringing different understandings of art and its forms to it, so one has to be very responsible with that idea. But given that, for me it’s quite amazing that some people couldn’t get past the image of this freed slave as a slave. I thought that by taking him out of context, he became a man and became something else other than just what was placed on him by the tropes of being in the monument.

“I feel like there was such a diversity of opinions from the audience at the Walker Theater and at the radio station because some had the idea it should be a family group there [in my sculpture] or that there should be perhaps a famous African-American simply as a statue, as a monument. Some people thought that perhaps there should be a John Brown or someone holding a gun. So it ran the gamut of emotions of what they would like to see. I personally thought that asepct of the conversation was really great, because my over-arching goal is to have these images discussed around the table and to also think about what the images of African-Americans in monument form should be for the world.

“I guess I would say that positivist imagery is different for different people and I am infusing a different way of thinking about that. I found what I did to be positive. It gets it out of that context it was in so you could see it as original as what it was, that it was an image from the past and not the present. It’s part of my practice to use the same image to make that same point rather than to make a new image. I don’t believe you forget the old image until you really deal with it. ”

I suggested to Wilson that his embrace of the ongoing discourse was a little bit unusual in that art-worlders frequently talk about how much they want discourse, but at the first sign of dissent or discord they retreat back into the comfortable little art-world bubble. Wilson agreed — and pointed to how this Indianapolis conversation is the kind of artist-public discourse wherein art can play an important role as a community protagonist.

“I was really thrilled by all the dialogue,” Wilson said. “It actually invigorated me because I’m hearing from everyone. I was trying to reach everyone before I made the piece and tell them what I do before [the controversy] started to emerge, but I’m dealing with a city here not a museum. Museums are kind of finite. At a museum you can kind of test the water and see what people think and how they react to things given their environment. Information goes in and comes out and work is made. With a city, you realize — or I have come to realize — that as many groups as you speak to there are other groups. You can’t ever reach everyone. So I’m just really thrilled that there’s engagement and talk about art. This conversation is just really unusual. I’ve been really thrilled with it. Everyone in Indianapolis has been great to me and respectful and thrilled with what I do, but even people who are against [E Pluribus Unum] seem to still respect me and my work. They just don’t like this one.

“It’s a conversation with a public with many ideas about what art should be. That excited me, engaged me, and in my mind what I would like is to see more of this play out in actuality. I think a lot of it is also that there’s a history of broken promises and things not happening the way they should there, so the weight that’s put on this particular commission is great. I’m not talking about the people who commissioned my work, I just mean mean the general history [of the relationship between Indianapolis’ power structure and the African-American community].”

The future of Wilson’s project is still in doubt as the major funder, the Central Indiana Community Foundation, continues a series of meetings and discussions throughout the city. (The executive director of CICF, Brian Payne, is traveling this week and was unavailable for comment as of publication time. I’ll have him on MAN soon.) Wilson says the piece is final, that he won’t make changes in response to community discussions. Ross and Wilson both said that they are excited by the discussions and the way in which Wilson’s art has emerged as a catalyst for community discussion, but both are unsure what the CICF will ultimately decide.

“If this were to happen it would really engage me and excite me to stay engaged with Indianapolis and to see that something else happens too,” Wilson said. “Some people are saying that there are a million monuments there — second only to Washington in terms of monuments in American cities — so why not have a monument on the statehouse lawn of a famous African-American from Indianapolis. I would stick by them and support that. At this town hall meeting at the Madam Walker Theater,  someone said, ‘Why don’t you work with some of the younger artists here?’ I suggested that I certainly would. There’s a lot that could come out of this in a very positive light. We’ll see what happens.”

According to the Recorder, the next public meeting at which Wilson’s sculpture will be discussed is November 5.

of racism because we look different and so the manip of images has been a part of the boen of contention for a long long time in the AA comm bc it’s been kind of controlled by others

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  1. As an Indianapolis resident, I’ve believe there are two things that have been overlooked in the discussions.

    The first is that some folks have unfairly made this project out to be something that singularly represents the African-American community in Indianapolis. The final sculpture, like the one on which it was based, represents more fully the city of Indianapolis–not just one part of the community.

    The second is that I think it was courageous for CICF to invite and fund this project. Clearly, everyone that was part of this decision understood at the outset the themes that Fred Wilson would explore. It’s not as if anyone thought he was going to come to Indy and make some abstract geometric flower.

    While our community may have fissures, cracks, and holes, for better or worse we are still one community.

    In large part, I believe this is the very point of the sculpture: to serve as something that encourages if not forces us to consider the representations of the community in the community, and the historical implications that have followed and will continue.

    In the end I think it would be a tremendous loss if Indianapolis does not have a project by Fred Wilson on the Cultural Trail.

  2. Flounder Lee says:

    I was at the first meeting where Fred Wilson spoke about his work and I was at this last one also. I was embarrassed at the turnout for the first one for such a prominent artist. I was excited for the turnout of the second one, but this time my embarrassment was at the behavior of some of the audience.

    A conversation and debate around the topic is great, this is what art should do, but a crowd that just yells over the top of the people on stage and demands that their voice and ONLY their voice be heard is not debate. There was a plan to have them read questions from cards drawn randomly from the audience, but this one group wouldn’t sit until they basically scrapped that and let their speakers go. At least they sometimes let one question get asked between their speakers. 275 people were silence by 25 and that is a shame.

    I do understand the point of view of Leroy and the rest of the people that disagrees with the sculpture, I just disagree with their point of view. Wilson is not making a monument (which the crowd continually suggested he make to one highly regarded person or another), he is making a piece of public art. He is taking a freed slave from a monument that is struck in awe of his white saviors and moving him to his own place in the center of dialog, upright and in charge of his own destiny owing only to his community and himself.

    Lastly, one of the things I do not understand, is that if this freed slave on the soldiers and sailors monument is the only representation of African-Americans on a monument in Indianapolis, why hasn’t the community been doing something to change that before now, not when a prominent African-American artist comes to make a new art piece talking about an important set of issues?

  3. […] be a model for other artists. Look for an update on MAN soon. (On MAN: Introducing the project, talking with Wilson, talking with funder Brian […]

  4. […] about how racism influences public space. In Indianapolis, a Wilson artwork is at the center of a heated debate about race and representation, power, and cultural […]

  5. […] about how racism influences public space. In Indianapolis, a Wilson artwork is at the center of a heated debate about race and representation, power, and cultural […]

  6. G_dub says:

    I think Wilson’s proposed public art piece is inspiring and everything that public art should be. I’m not a Indianapolis resident, I’m not even and American citizen, but from an outsider (Canadian) perspective, discussion of race issues and referencing the past will never be passé or tired until true equality is reached.
    What I believe makes this piece so strong is that it invites discussion on a still very valid and highly political issue, unlike so much public art today, it doesn’t pander to the masses. What’s is great about it is that it’s obviously about race, but reading into the sculpture you realize that it is actually quite positive. The sculpture also recognizes the audience as intelligent, thoughtful people; it’s definitely not patronizing. Art is supposed to invite thoughtful dialogues, otherwise it is just vapid decoration. Art is also supposed to be seen, so public art is really the obvious avenue to create discussion.
    Great article!

  7. Lisa Johnson says:

    Since an African American is depicted in the sculpture, African Americans should decide whether this is an image they want to represent themselves in a public setting. If the majority of African Americans see themselves as being treated like second class citizens, then the sculpture should be approved. If it were up to me, I would prefer an uplifting image reflecting African American pride and accomplishment. Hundreds of years from now, this monument will be interpreted by others as the way in which African Americans viewed themselves in 2011. Do most African Americans see themselves as oppressed by the majority culture?

  8. […] does Wilson.  In an interview with MAN in October, 2010, Wilson expressed surprise that his artwork was being described as depicting African-American […]

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