Fred Wilson Re-Presents History and Objects by Maria Gaspar

Recently, I had the opportunity to hear Fred Wilson speak about his work at the Milwaukee Art Museum’s “New American Collections Galleries” opening exhibition a few weeks ago. I was not very familiar with his work prior to this lecture, but have become extremely interested in the ways in which he recontextualizes, deconstructs and re-presents the way in which historical institutions or art institutions present historical objects, in particular those of Non-Western origin or indigenous origins. Wilson works with collections that already exist within museums- African Art, Native American Art, Post-Modern Art, etc, etc. He described the way in which he gains access to a museum (historical or art based) and has the ability to redisplay the cultural objects available to him. Obviously, museums know exactly what they are getting themselves into when they ask Fred Wilson to create an installation using their objects. However, Wilson states that it is not about disrespecting the institution, it is about looking and critically thinking about the meaning and representation of these objects that are interpreted by the museum to the public. It is then about having the viewer reconsider notions of representation, race and colonialism. Fred Wilson works within the museum system. He looks through the basements of museums, storage spaces, has conversations with the security guards, docents, curators and visitors and gains inspiration from it all to create his installations. His interest in existing museum collections is fascinating. He challenges the viewer, invokes conversation and questions museumification by creating new connections between objects and between objects and their locations. He described the way museums include all African objects in one plexi-glass vitrine. He asked the audience if the same would be done with say, Modernist paintings. Would they be exhibited on top of one another? Wilson then showed us an image of an  installation of a collection he recontextualized using Westernized Paintings and Sculptures. And, yes, did it look pretty wild! A Giacommeti right next to a Picasso in front of a DeKooning and all on one platform! He said that all he did was exhibit them the same way African objects have been traditionally “showcased”. Through his practice, he has been able to challenge museums to critically think about the way they present the world to others and to become more creative about the way they do this.I think Wilson redefines notions of culture and power in ways that we need to reconsider.  Fred Wilson throws it back at us- as the viewers, the cultural producers, the museums and the artists. He promises nothing, but challenges everything. 

Fred Wilson received the MacArthur Genius Grant in 1999 and represented the USA at the Biennial Cairo in 199 2 and the Venice Biennale in 2003. In 2001, he was the subject of a retrospective, Fred Wilson: Objects and Installations, 1979-2000 at the Center for Art and Visual Culture, University of Maryland, Baltimore County. For the 2003 Venice Biennale, Wilson created a multi-media installation which borrowed its title from a line in “Othello.” His elaborate Venice work, “Speak of Me as I Am,” focused on representations of Africans in Venetian culture.

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