Imperial Scaffolding

The Walker Art Center postponed the June 3 opening of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in order to dismantle “Scaffold,” a work by the artist Sam Durant.

“Scaffold” combines architectural elements of seven historical scaffolds used in state-sanctioned hangings. It includes the elements of the structure built for the December 26, 1862 mass execution of 38 Dakota men in Mankato. This largest mass execution in US history was ordered by Lincoln in the same week he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It is a terrible gash in U.S. history marking the violence hidden in nationalist, white supremacist mythologies of freedom. Members of the region’s American Indian community protested the inclusion of this work in the city’s public garden. After consulting with protesters and the artist, the Walker announced that it would take the work down.

[For a very thorough overview of the arc of this story, its historical and community contexts, see “Everything You Need to Know About Gallows Being Removed from the Sculpture Garden,” and also this statement from Chief Arvol Looking Horse — published on this Facebook account. The comments accompanying that post include different perspectives on “Scaffold” and its dismantling.]

Within the context of Documenta (where it was first exhibited in 2012), “Scaffold” had a certain power. There, it manifested a critique of the art world’s limits – but the limits of that critique become too painful to bear when the work is placed in a public park 80 miles from the city in which these men were murdered.

Reviewing the history of that execution, I was struck by the fact that the special correspondent who reported the story for The New York Times dedicated a long paragraph to the scaffold:

The instrument upon which the extreme sentence of the law was to be performed, was constructed in a very simple yet most ingenious manner. It was erected upon the main street, directly opposite the jail, and between it and the river. The shape of this structure was a perfect square, and not, as has been stated, a diamond. The cause of this latter error being made was because the sides of the structure was not parallel with the front line of the jail; but being built on an oblique across the roadway presented a point or angle to both the river and jail. The base of the gallows consisted of a square formed by four rough logs, one foot each in diameter, and twenty feet long. From each corner of this square rose a heavy round pole, running up to a height of twenty feet, while from the centre came another but heavier timber, rising to about the same height. At an elevation of six feet from the ground was a platform, so constructed as to slide easily up and down the corner pillars, and with a large opening in the centre around the middle mast or post. From each corner of this platform a rope or cable was fastened to a movable iron ring that slid up and down middle mast by means of a rope fastened to one of its sides. This rope was taken to the top of the mast, run through a pulley, and returned to a point between the ground and the second frame or platform, and made fast. The mechanism of the whole thing consisted in raking the platform by means of the pulley, and then making the rope fast, when by a blow from an ax by a man standing in the centre of the square, the platform falls; the large opening in its centre protects the executioner from being crushed by the fall. About eight feet above the platform, when in its raised position, was another frame similar to the ground square, morticed into the corner pillars. Into these timbers were cut notches, ten on each side of the frame, at equal distances, and a short piece of rope was passed around the beam of each notch, and tied securely. Depending from this again was the fatal noose. And now having described the scaffold as it appeared when ready for its victims, we pass to.

[I feel] Durant must have read this account: his work taps into its cold turn to the architecture of a hanging. This intensely clinical, almost unreadable paragraph leads directly into the account of the hanging itself. The paragraph serves as a form of suspense — a delay in the reader’s gratification. You can read that article (link below) if you like, but, before clicking through, beware. The story is saturated with racism. It makes grisly turns to the suffering of the executed — it holds very little back — the emotional economy of this dispatch moves towards its terrible resolution, concluding with the victorious shouts from people in the crowd who saw their own wounds avenged in mass death. One wants to bear witness, but not from a position that confirms the authority of the settler colonial state. [NYT: The Indian Executions: An interesting account, from our special correspondent]

Responding to the community outcry regarding Durant’s citation of this history, Olga Viso, the museum’s Executive Director, published a thoughtful open letter expressing a readiness to be present to her institution’s decision, and to take responsibility for the museum’s lack of awareness. The artist was eager to do the same. By withdrawing this large public sculpture — and by arriving at this decision so quickly (in barely a week?) — the Walker and the artist have demonstrated a willingness to confront the limits of (in this instance) anti-racist art made by white people within institutional contexts dominated by white people. From inside the museum, one must ask: am I drawn to this work because it is strong and challenging, or because the artist’s orientation to these traumatic histories is closest to my own? What does that mean? Does this work address the communities my institution serves? How? Is the community which holds that traumatic history a part of my institution’s audience? Does my institution have the capacity to support the difficulty of this work? Is it supportable? Does work like this engage people who recognize, who know, who feel these wounds? How?

I’m attracted to the story of “Scaffold” because, while one might be tempted to frame the dismantling of this work as a form of censorship, the withdrawal of the work signals, in my view, a willingness to be present to the difficulty of making work about state-sanctioned murder — it signals an openness to confronting, to recognizing a work’s limits. “Scaffold” is startling, strong — but it also feels cynical, almost fascistic in its formalism.

A Star Tribune story by Alicia Eler featured the following observation from writer and activist Sasha Houston Brown:

“It’s five generations ago, and really we have to realize that 1862 was not that long ago,” said Sasha Houston Brown, who is Dakota. “I think it should publicly be taken down so we can see it come down. It’s really traumatizing for our people to look at that and have it just appear without any warning or idea that they were doing this. And it’s not art to us.”

Brown describes the work as callousness and as “not art to us.” This situated denunciation (“not art to us“) is pointed — the articulation of the boundary between art and not-art is profoundly colonial. Not only does that distinction relegate much indigenous cultural expression to the category of artifact, it also coats the reception of contemporary art by Native artists in a language of folk art — placing such work at terrific remove from art historical discourse about contemporary art practice. That reception may also be oblivious to the work’s engagement with traditions themselves — an engagement might be critical, playful, parodic, imaginative, speculative, biographical, apocryphal and more. Furthermore, museums have absorbed into their collections objects with profound meaning — objects stolen from people and exhibited in a state of what one can only describe as an ongoing cosmic violation. [For an introduction to this important subject and how it matters to artists, see David Garneau’s lecture, “From Colonial Trophy Case to Non-Colonial Keeping House“]

The questioning of what art is, who an artist is, and what an artist does is right on the surface of much contemporary art-making. In an essay on the artist James Luna, Paul Chaat Smith describes the Native artist working experimentally/conceptually as an “escape artist” who eludes institutional forms of capture — whose practice is articulated through flight.  He writes:

“To mount a serious challenge to the accepted order of things involving Indians, a prerequisite for making Indian conceptual art, one must become an expert in the fine art of staging jailbreaks…I am speaking not of literal jails but of the ideological apparatus that powerfully creates its own world of expectations and normalcy.

In North America, the ideological prison that confines Indian agency has unique features. We have never been simply ignored, or simply romanticized, or been merely the targets of assimilation or genocide. It is rather all these things and many more, often at the same time in different places. The prison is a dreamcatcher, a vapor. It is both vicious and flattering, flexible and never monolithic. It can’t be refuted or denied. It just is. Most devastating of all, the ideological prison is capable of becoming an elixir that we Indian people ourselves find irresistible.  [From “Luna Remembers” in Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong]

Contemporary artists working from and with indigenous contexts are scarcely visible to the contemporary art world — this mirrors the ongoing violence of the projection of indigenous life into the past as “lost” and “extinct.” And so “Scaffold” appeared to some as a way into a history that is otherwise inaccessible. But from a different perspective — “Scaffold” looks like a blank re-presentation of ongoing violence. It looks something like an ideological prison.

Durant’s work often has this re-presentative form. He has long history of making work that confronts racist structures of power — or that is, at least, about confronting racist structures of power. I’ve always struggled with this element of his work: it raises, for me, the question of what it means to make work about anti-racist forms of struggle, and what it means to make anti-racist work — it raises the question of the difference between one thing and the other.

I believe that “Scaffold” is meant to represent the blankness, the flatness of the machine — the mechanics of state-sanctioned violence as something that is administered. (“The instrument upon which the extreme sentence of the law was to be performed, was constructed in a very simple yet most ingenious manner.”) Durant’s architectural work is so blank, however, that when situated in public, it risks becoming a playground.

At a historical moment when so many seem to enjoy their murderous racism, this is not bearable.

We can greet the news of this work’s dismantling with a sigh of relief. Perhaps the action of taking it apart will operate as some kind of cleansing — if not of the history that the work cites, then of the institutional failures which had placed that history at so very great a remove.

[5/30/17: A few people closer to Minneapolis have shared their perspective in comments regarding this post on my Facebook page. Those remarks are worth sharing here. From Angela Anderson:

I think it’s worth adding – for all of those unfamiliar with Minneapolis geography – that the Walker Art Center and the American Indian Center & the Little Earth housing complex are located on two diametrically opposed ends of the same street (Franklin Ave). One end is situated on the edge of one of Minneapolis’s most posh neighborhoods (the Walker), while the other one in a neighborhood made up of largely poor/working class poc (the American Indian Center/Little Earth), which was plagued by police violence for many years (and maybe still is). As a former Mpls resident, reading about this sculpture and the non-interaction with anyone in the Dakota community (even though they are down the street) made me very angry & very happy that it’s being taken down.

On top of that, the Mankato hanging was part of an ongoing genocide, and not just a “state-sponsored hanging”.

I couldn’t agree more — these executions concentrate that (also state-sanctioned) ongoing genocide into a single spectacle —  this was a public execution, punctuating the War of 1862. It is worth taking a minute to learn about this war — one might start with the Minnesota Historical Society’s website.  Aren Aizura remarks on the location: “the Sculpture Garden is on Minneapolis Parks and Rec land, so the decision is not just about the difficulty of art in an abstract sense but public accountability more generally.” Sheila Regan’s article for Hyperallergic includes a lot of information about the protests, Durant’s work, the site itself — including photos. I’ve chosen not to reproduce those images in order to encourage clicking through to Regan’s essay. The photo below is as the work appeared at Documenta.]

[6/1/17: Here, a report on the outcome of the mediation: Agreement Reached on Scaffold.]

 

durant-daily-pic_klmulz
Sam Durant, “Scaffold” (2012). Photo by Lucy Hogg.