“All together one?”: An Exploration of Fred Wilson’s
E Pluribus Unum
Slavery memorials have been controversial since the immediate aftermath of thecivil war when sculptors, bureaucrats and activists argued over how to best represent the“peculiar institution” in stone. In
Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves
art historian Kirk Savage documents the scores of monuments to emancipation that sprung up in the late19
century, and the ways in which they reified the childlike, dependant and degradedstereotypes of African-Americans. They aesthetically inscribed onto the public landscapethe role African Americans would play in the newly forming post-war polity: they would be supplicant, inferior, marginal, servile. Savage tries to tackle this at times amorphouslink between aesthetics and politics – how are our notions of beauty reflections of racismand how does racism create our notions of beauty? To what degree do representations of race determine the way we read race onto the bodies around us? To what degree didsculpture and monument place racial hierarchies in stone through representations of black and white bodies? These questions all re-emerge in a particularly charged fashion whendiscussing contemporary public monuments to slavery. Recently Fred Wilson, aconceptual artist, generated a large and still unresolved controversy in Indianapolis withhis piece
E Pluribus Unum
, a sculpture that visually comments on one of the moreegregious post civil war monuments. Fred Wilson believes that public art shouldgenerate engagement, and create a new way of seeing the embedded politics within our material and built environment. The African American community of Indianapolishowever, or at least some particularly vocal members within that community, argued for an opposite approach. Let the past be past, they insist, dredging it back up will only dous harm. This particular controversy raises a series of questions that we, as publichumanists must engage. Should the purpose of monuments and memorials be to generatecritical conversation and open up dialogue about history? Or to provide a resolution (aclosure) that the public may desperately need
?Fred Wilson burst onto the art scene with his 1992 exhibit
Mining the Museum
atthe Baltimore Maryland historical society. In this exhibit he remixed their historicalmaterials, using juxtaposition to reveal the absences and silences within the archives. Hiswork since then has continued with this theme – rearranging objects on display to revealthe embedded power dynamics within museums and our physical environment. His goalis to “excavate…the site of institutional racism” and through the rearrangement of archival materials “bring to light a history and a cultural presence that have been buried beneath layers of neglect and deliberate exclusion.”
E Pluribus Unum
was his next project in this vein – an attempt to do with monuments what he’s already done withmuseums – reveal the ways in which they are a reflection of ideological and institutional power. His piece is a response to the Soldiers and Sailors monument located prominentlyin the center of downtown Indianapolis. After a visit years ago he noticed both thesupplicating image of the slave (the only black image on a monument in a city filled withmonuments) and the strange way the monument was both venerated and ignored. During
There is a slippage in this paper between three distinctive categories: memorial, monument, and publicart. In this case however, Wilson’s piece inhabits a strange hybrid place between the three because it is a piece of public art commenting on a monument which in so doing memorializes and comments on slavery.
Halle, Halle and Wilson Fred. “Mining the Museum.”
, No 44 (1993). Pp 151-172, 170.