Recently there has been quite a stink raised by the Citizens Against Slave Image about Fred Wilson’s proposed E Pluribus Unum sculpture in downtown Indianapolis. This little controversy raises pertinent questions about the role of public sculpture in America as well as the powerlessness of the arts community as a whole when faced with any sort of opposition.
Wilson (b. 1954, NY) is Conceptual artist of African, Native American, European and Amerindian decent. He appropriates existing works in museums and alters their display in order to emphasize how context creates meaning. The artist juxtaposes artworks and artifacts in order to question institutional biases in the interpretation of history and aesthetic value. An example of his work is Mining the Museum (1992) at the Baltimore Historical Society in which he reorganized the artifacts to emphasize the history of slavery in America.
Fred Wilson’s proposed E Pluribus Unum sculpture for the Indianapolis Cultural Trail is an appropriation of an existing sculpture, one of a freed slave. Wilson’s project is to free the slave from the monument thus emphasizing the absence of other monuments to African Americans. The sculpture would raise a much needed discussion of race in Indianapolis and in the wider public sphere.
What’s the problem?
The Citizens Against Slave Image group held a “rally” (50 or so people) that protested the sculpture on July 30th 2011, causing the Central Indiana Community Foundation to drop the sculpture from its intended site at the City-County Building. What’s the big deal if it’s moved? Well other than the fact that it’s “site-specific,” meaning the work functions on a level that depends on the site in large part to make meaning or relevance- it’s a case of shooing a controversial, discussion-worthy piece into the nether regions of the city, away from the high traffic areas and away from the other sculptures the work was intended to comment with. According to the artist, “I have spent a long time trying to figure out a place for the work that would have some fellowship to the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument and also be within downtown…the siting I thought spoke well on many different levels.”
“I assumed that if this piece was nowhere near the monument that it would fade into the background as (the figure on the monument) had for 100 years…that is a reason for having something else permanent, to think about the relationship between the past and now. So I’ll keep everything open until it’s clear that the work is compromised.” (MAN)
Mayor Ballard has felt it necessary due to the controversy that the current site would not be a suitable location. As of right now it seems like the location is the biggest issue and that it will not be installed at the City-County Building site. What does this mean? It means a handful of people not in favor of the project have the power to scare off an actually good piece of public sculpture. The majority should never have all-encompassing power, but it seems like any negativity towards an art project automatically means it gets the axe. A meaningful artwork in a public place breeds discussion, which gives rise to thought and ideas that give power back to the people. Discussion, thought and ideas are all dangerous it seems.
For more on this controversy see Tyler Green’s discussion on Modern Art Notes, in addition, the Indianapolis Museum of Art director Maxwell Anderson has also lent his support for the sculpture in the Indianapolis Star’s op-ed page which can be read here.