I use beauty as a way of helping people to receive difficult or upsetting ideas,” fred wilson has noted.1 Throughout his career, the New York City-based artist has explored the relations between race and representation, counterpointing objective and subjective portrayals of history and exposing how institutional rhetorics support and repress structural racism. Early in his career, for example, Wilson’s mining the museum exhibition (1992-1993) at the Maryland Historical Society asked visitors to reexamine historical objects and their histories.2 Given access to the entire Historical Society collection and invited to re-install objects from its archive, wilson reinterpreted the collection by juxtaposing its holdings in new tableaux, thereby producing commentary on slavery, forgotten histories, and preconceived ideas about race. In installations such as “Metalwork,” which situated rusted slave shackles amidst a formal display of sterling silver tea services and goblets (see Fig. 9), he asked museum-goers not [End Page 3] only to reconsider the history of a specific place (Maryland’s own history of slavery) but also to ponder broader questions about the politics of collecting and display within institutional contexts—what gets collected, what gets displayed, and how curatorial choices shape our perceptions of both objects and their social and political contexts. He noted later, “I try to bring out the meanings that I see in the objects, often the ones that, for one reason or another, are hidden in plain sight.”3 Visitors to the Maryland Historical Society were provoked to weigh the “truth” and “lies” of historical narratives aligned with objects, now arranged in new dialogues with one another as well as with the institution that housed and displayed them.
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Born in 1954, Fred Wilson spent his formative years in the Bronx and in Westchester County, New York. He earned his Bachelor’s degree from SUNY Purchase in 1976 and moved to New York City after graduation, finding employment in the education departments of the American Museum of Natural History, the American Crafts Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These early experiences laid the foundations for his provocative work with institutions and museum objects. The many honors and awards Wilson has received include a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (1999) and the Larry Aldrich Foundation Award (2003); in 2008 he became a Trustee of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Numerous studies of his work are now appearing in print, and in 2011 the British art press Ridinghouse published Fred Wilson: A Critical Reader, containing key statements by the artist about his work.4
Over the course of his career, Wilson’s art has taken a variety of forms. Rather than working in a discrete visual or plastic medium, he juxtaposes mediums, artistic modes, and historical events in order to estrange habits of perception and valuation. On the one hand, by staging new, arresting encounters between objects and viewers in museum and exhibition venues, his work unmasks unacknowledged legacies of the past and exposes unspoken cultural assumptions in the present. For instance, he has interrogated the logics of collection and display in both popular and institutional contexts by arranging objects such as mammy dolls, globes, uniforms, and porcelain figurines into dramatic confrontations with objets d’art, thereby constructing installations that comment on race and institutional power. Wilson is widely recognized for this kind of work within [End Page 4] cultural institutions such as the Maryland Historical Society (the site of his 1993 Mining the Museum exhibition), the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College (the site of his 2006 exhibition So Much Trouble in the World–Believe It or Not!), and the Institute of Jamaica Gallery (the site of his 2007 installation An Account of a Voyage to the Island Jamaica with the Un-Natural History of That Place).5 In Mining the Museum, for example, an installation titled “Cabinet Making 1820-1910” displayed a tableau consisting of an actual wooden whipping post (last used in 1838 and long consigned to storage in the Historical Society...