An Interview with Fred Wilson
by David Spalding
Mining the Museum, Fred Wilson‚s 1992 reinstallation of the
Maryland Historical Society‚s collection, forever changed our
notions of institutional objectivity. Displaying slave shackles
alongside the silver goblets used by Baltimore‚s colonial
gentry, Wilson unearthed a buried history, showing that museums
may tell one story to silence another.
|Fred Wilson, Mining
the Museum, 1992, installation view.
(photo courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures)
Wilson has since worked with over a dozen museums, talking with
their curators, guards, janitors and surrounding communities to
excavate pieces of the past that remain important to a site‚s
most overlooked audiences. He also has created numerous video,
photographic and sculptural worksųgallery installations that
often critique display systems (the anthropology museum is a
favorite target) or explode stereotypes of African Americans.
Currently the subject of the touring, mid-career survey „Objects
and Installations, 1979ų2000,š Wilson will also represent the
United States in the 2003 Venice Biennial. While the artist
continues his work with institutions, his studio practice
centers on more personal concerns. Then again, all of Wilson‚s
work has been personal, which has been the source of its
David Spalding: „Objects and Installationsš juxtaposes works
that would normally not appear together: photography, sculpture,
video and recreations of site-specific installations. Did seeing
so much of your projects together for the first time suggest
Fred Wilson: I think each venue will bring up different things.
I did see in the first venue how, even over ten years, certain
things linked up. H RR R and
H PE (1999) and Friendly Natives (1991), which are
unrelated topically, had a certain unexpected emotional
connection. That won‚t happen at Berkeley because they‚ll be in
different rooms. And it‚s interesting to see how my travel
photographs of Egypt and Peru from the ő70s relate to the more
recent work, despite the decades between them. As an artist,
your basic interests do return in different ways.
DS: Elsewhere you‚ve discussed how your early experiences of
personal dislocation and racism have fueled your work. Do these
memories still motivate you?
FW: Leaving school and moving back to Manhattan and engaging
with the art world, I quickly realized that there was a lot of
bias. There was no entry into the art world if you were African
American, or very little. Ideas about people of color were
naive, sometimes downright racist. Once I went to a job
interview for a director‚s job at a gallery on 57th streetųthis
was way back in the late ‚70s. My resume was fine over the
phone, but when I showed up at the door, the owner said, „Oh, we
just filled that job.š And I had just talked to her. I was
shocked. Somehow I thought the art world was safe from that. But
being involved with art meant you were not so engaged with the
rest of the world, and people of color were basically the rest
of the world. So that opened my eyes. I don‚t think I would be
making the work I am had it not been for that.
The museum environment reminded me so much of my childhood: a
world of denial. If you‚re part of a minority, people may accept
you being around without necessarily understanding anything
about you. They‚re not thinking about what they‚re saying in
front of you or to you. That‚s how I feel about museums: they‚re
talking to people from their own world. They‚re not thinking
about other people‚s desires or feelings.
I feel less inclined now to beat the social/political drum, but
I always respond to situations that I feel are problematic.
Young artists are entering a different environment, and have new
opportunities. I still find interesting problems to work with,
but much of my new work is more personal. The museum projects
blend my personal issues with larger ones.
DS: What sorts of personal issues inform your studio
FW: At the moment, I‚m interested in things relating to home and
house. I‚ve been working on projects around those issues for a
long time but not really showing them. Those things will come on
view next year. That work and the recent work I‚ve done with
glass relates to more personal things.
DS: How did you start working with glass?
FW: I wanted to get away from working with museums. Because I
worked with things that already existed, I had a desire to do
something that I controlled entirely. Working with museums is
great but it‚s collaborative. I‚m not known for working with any
materials, so the whole thing was wide open. I wanted to use
materials that were extremely difficult to make art with because
they‚re so heavily laden with other issuesųthe notion of craft.
Unfortunately, the art world grades objects in terms of whether
they‚re high art, which intrigued me. I was invited to the
Pilchuck Glass School in Seattle, where I started exploring
different materials that are not fashionable in art. I view it
as a personal challenge to see what I can do with these
The glass was difficult because I knew nothing about its
properties and had to work with a glass blower. Luckily, my idea
worked well in glass and the glass blower enjoyed making those
forms. When someone else makes your work, who they are goes into
it as well. If they‚re connected to it, the fabricator can
develop a wonderful relationship with the artist. This glass
blower, Dante Marioni, is fantastic. He‚s a very prominent glass
blower in America and we got along really well. He felt that the
piece used the properties of glass and he enjoyed making it. In
many ways it was just luck.
|Fred Wilson, Drip
Drop Plop, 2001, glass,
8 by 5 feet.
(photo courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures)
DS: Where did those drips and puddles in Drip Drop Plop
(2001) come from?
FW: I was trying to make the simplest form that still had some
meaning for me. I was thinking a lot about spots and drips.
There are all these associations for me about black people being
considered as ink, coming out of ink wells and things, and the
band the Ink Spots, from the 1940s, whose name strikes me as
self-mocking. I‚m interested in not only the reduction of form
but also the reduction of humanity to a very simple form that I
find pathetic. The color black represents African American
people because it‚s been placed on us as a representation. Of
course, the color blackųthe absence of lightųreally has nothing
to do with African Americans. But there‚s a whole other layer of
meaning. I also saw it as tears, which addresses the
relationship between my internal feelings about my mother‚s
situation and the world. I thought I would start with these
black spots and work towards more complex representations. I‚m
happy with where it‚s going, and I‚m enjoying this process.
You‚ll be seeing lots of spots in various forms.
|Fred Wilson, from
Speaking in Tongues: A Look at the Language of Display,
1999, Fine Art Museum of San Francisco. (photo courtesy
the artist and Metro Pictures Gallery)
DS: When you‚re working with a collection, have you ever been
concerned about being used by an institution to legitimate its
FW: I never worry about it. Because whether they‚re genuine or
disingenuous, I tell them that I don‚t repeat myself and I‚m
going to look at the collection and the new piece is going to
come from this place. If they have some other ulterior motives
that‚s one thing. I do what I do. Only once have I felt damned
if I do, damned if I don‚t, because the curator had a special
agenda that included trying to look PC when he wasn‚t. It
annoyed me that he wanted me to do racially charged things, but
I was happy with the project. I did what I normally do and I
didn‚t avoid those things just because I thought he wanted me to
do them. I took the project in directions that made sense for
the community and me. I don‚t want to get used, but I feel if
you‚re an artist your work may go into a system of display, in
the context of someone‚s collectionųsomeone that you might not
necessarily want to have lunch with. All the artist can do is
put everything they‚ve got into that work.
DS: As you explore a more personal visual language in your
studio practice, do you see your institutional work changing?
FW: I don‚t want to stop doing institutional critiques or museum
projects. I‚d still like to work with a zoo, a planetarium and
an historic site, like the sites in my early photographs. More
and more, the works combine global issues, institutional issues
and my personal issues.
Fred Wilson: Objects and Institutions, 1979ų2000 will be at
the Berkeley Art Museum, Berkeley, California January 22ųMarch
3, 2003 and the Blaffer Gallery, University of Houston, Texas
May 3ųAugust 3, 2003 before traveling to other venues throughout
the United States. „Fred Wilson: New Workš is at San Francisco‚s
Rena Bransten Gallery February 13ųMarch 13, 2003.
Contributing Editor DAVID SPALDING lives in San Francisco, where
he teaches contemporary art and critical theory at the
California College of Arts and Crafts.