Fred Wilson Intervenes at AMAM Sculpture Court


Wildfire Test Pit, one of two exhibits by Fred Wilson that opened Thursday, is an homage to Edmonia Lewis, the 19th century Oberlin student and neoclassical sculptor.

Julia Peterson, Arts & Culture Editor

This year, everyone who walks through the front doors of the Allen Memorial Art Museum will be confronted by an unexpected sight. The King Sculpture Court is full of imposing, broken statues. They may look like something from another time and place, but they have really come from nowhere farther than our own town and campus. This collection of sculptures is Wildfire Test Pit, one of the two exhibitions currently on display at the Allen by contemporary artist Fred Wilson set to remain until June 2017.

Wildfire Test Pit … is the first thing that you’ll see when you walk in,” said Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Denise Birkhofer. “Visitors might come in expecting [the exhibit] to be one of our typical museum spaces, not realizing at first that it’s actually an artwork put together by a contemporary artist from his perspective … People have to spend time with the spaces to really understand them and think about them from their own perspective without being told what to think about the art … or the space.”

Wildfire Test Pit is an example of one of Wilson’s famous ‘museum interventions’ — his practice of revamping art and museum spaces and presenting them in new, unexpected ways. His intent is to shine a spotlight on the often-unspoken dominant narratives that are woven through these institutions.

Wilson spoke about the origins of his methods. “When I was young, often I was getting annoyed that [museums] would be talking about people of color or talking about a particular subject that I knew something about as if there was nobody around who would know anything about it and they could make it up if they wanted to,” Wilson said. “I decided to test my theories about this by making an exhibition and changing the narrative to see how different it would be. And it was very different. … So I made exhibitions, and I made them as subjective as I could from my own perspective and from [the perspectives of ] others who were not being heard in the museum. I wanted to shake [the museum] up. To say — ‘Listen! Wake up! You have a specific point of view, and you’re acting like you don’t.’”

Wildfire Test Pit is unique among Wilson’s museum interventions in that it is ostensibly biographical. It engages with the story of Edmonia Lewis, a neoclassical sculptor who studied at Oberlin in the mid-1800s and spent most of her career in Rome.

Lewis’ experiences resonated with Wilson. “Interested in history as I am, and certainly [the history] of people of color and artists, I just knew I had to research something about [Lewis],” Wilson said. “Because of the fact that she was a Native person and an African-American person, her work was not valued in the same way that other sculptors were … she struggled in her time.”

The name of the exhibit is a tribute to Lewis in itself, though it references other themes broached by the exhibition.

“It’s called Wildfire Test Pit because Edmonia Lewis’ Chippewa name … was Wildfire,” Wilson said. He described the term ‘test pit’ as a sort of archaeological litmus test for sites. “You have vinyl texts on the wall, which speak about certain aspects of the show, you have labels that basically are the notes from various books about Edmonia Lewis and then there’s the artwork from the [AMAM’s] collection that I felt had some importance to the subject. Also, we’re looking at the trauma she went through at Oberlin and generally the traumas of the time before Emancipation, but also the triumph of her and the women who were sculptors in Rome.”

Despite the inspiration that Wilson drew from Edmonia Lewis, to only call Wildfire Test Pit a historical biography would underserve an exhibition that is engaged with modern narratives being grappled with throughout the United States and globally.

“[Recent events are] something I was thinking about in Wildfire Test Pit, all the things that have been going on in the last year — the murder and the issues plaguing the United States around violence — but also around the world,” Wilson said. “I’m feeling these things as I’m making this work. And the fact that so many ancient ruins have been destroyed in this last year alone is just shocking and horrifying. So all these different lines of thinking are put together in a jumble, but they’re all overlaid and overlapping and of interest.”

This exhibition also carries special meaning for the Allen itself, as it will celebrate its centennial in 2017.

“Fred’s shows … different though they are, really relate to the concept of time — memory, nostalgia, history,” said Andria Derstine, director of the Allen. “It’s been great to have these on view right before the museum’s centennial … as we’re thinking about the past century of the Allen and what it has meant to so many students and faculty and visitors over the decades. … Both of these exhibitions just fall seamlessly into the trajectory that the Allen has had since it was founded.”

Wilson’s other exhibition currently on display at the Allen — Black to the Powers of Ten, situated in the Ellen Johnson Gallery of Modern Art — is not a museum intervention. The work shown here comes from an entirely different side of Wilson’s practice, consisting of pieces that he has created in his studio rather than unearthed from a preexisting collection. These exhibits mark the first time that both aspects of Wilson’s practice have been showcased in the same place and time.

Birkhofer explained that Wilson’s artwork in Black to the Powers of Ten engages with historic narratives surrounding race and contains a great deal of symbolism.

“The black glass — specifically the ones that are kind of baroque — are all from Venetian style glass-making or mirror-making or chandelier-making,” Wilson said. “I found some interesting corollaries between notions of empire in historic Venice and notions of empire today. So I began to look at the color black with the context of Venice vis-a-vis Shakespeare’s Othello. I enjoyed unpacking the story over and over again. It seems to be a very powerful metaphor for me. The mirrors and the chandeliers are all [titled with] quotes from Othello and I’m thinking very specifically about what the line is in relationship to the work and my own personal history.”

The glasswork in Black to the Powers of Ten also includes an array of black drops on the far wall of the gallery. Next to them, a different installation covers the wall in black-and-white representations of flags from African and African diaspora countries.

Although Wildfire Test Pit and Black to the Powers of Ten are profoundly different in nature and execution, they share many overarching questions, themes and challenges. Derstine hopes that Oberlin students will be able to take advantage of the richness of these exhibitions in an academic context.

“I’m … excited about how [the exhibits] will be used in teaching across the College and across, I hope, the Conservatory. Their themes lend themselves incredibly well to a wide range of disciplines at the College. Obviously, we hope that students in History, in Africana Studies, in art and even in such diverse fields as economics and the humanities and social sciences in general will come and use the works of art in their classes.”