- Subject to Display: Reframing Race in Contemporary Installation Art by Jennifer A. Gonzalez
A series of rooms containing new juxtapositions of familiar objects: a silver tea service sparkling behind a pair of iron manacles (with the caption “Metalwork, 1793–1880”), [End Page 208] a group of chairs arranged in view of a wooden whipping post (“Cabinet-Making 1820–1960”), an eighteenth-century sedan chair alongside a wooden model of a slave ship and baby carriages, one containing a Ku Klux Klan hood (“Modes of Transport 1770–1910”).
The artist, Fred Wilson, did not manufacture these objects but found them in the collections of the Baltimore Historical Society, at the institution’s invitation, and, in consultation with curators and docents, resituated them in rooms within the museum. That viewers might previously have visited the museum and been unaware of the shocking interplays they were suddenly witnesses to was central to the project, but also the need to give voice to unspoken historical realities within the community and the institution itself.
Wilson is one of five U.S. artists featured in Jennifer Gonzalez’s Subject to Display: Reframing Race in Contemporary Installation Art. The work described above, Mining the Museum, 1992, was an installation that changed the means by which contemporary artists would negotiate the often-invisible relationships between objects, institutions, and memory.
Mining the Museum heralded a moment when installation had come into its own as an artistic approach following its initial appearance with the site-specific and institutionally critical art practices of the 1960s. Installation involves the use of a site to increase awareness of its physical and/or political nature. Gonzalez presents a group of fascinating artists, Wilson, James Luna, Amalia Mesa-Bains, Pepon Osorio, and Renee Green, who emerged on the art scene in the late 1980s notable for their attention to how race shapes the experience and control of spaces. The author demonstrates how the artists engage in negotiations between audiences and institutions, within and outside the art world, by changing the context of familiar objects and décor in order to confront and challenge stereotypes of American Indian, African American, Chicana, and Puerto Rican cultures, as well as to explore the textures of those cultures from an insider’s perspective.
The book thus is not an historical overview of installation practice. Gonzalez organized the chapters according to issues relevant to each artist’s work, enabling her to address a range of questions at the intersection of site and race: hybridity and histories of photographic representation, theories of institutional critique and museum display, machismo, femininity, and intimacy, and theories of the archive and genealogy.
One recurring theme is the artists’ shared tendency toward something the author terms “autotopography,” an autobiographical approach that appears in their constructions of historical and contemporary personae and environments, personalizing and extending the installations to engage viewers as subjects.
Spectatorship thus shifts from abstract theoretical principle to provocative reality. For example, in Osorio’s Badge of Honor, a 1995 installation in the heart of a working class Puerto Rican neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, viewers entered a storefront to find reconstructions of a prison cell adjacent to an adolescent boy’s bedroom, and themselves witnesses to a video conversation between an incarcerated man and his fifteen-year-old son. By demonstrating how installations speak to different [End Page 209] audiences simultaneously due to the cultural references embedded within them, Gonzalez pushes the works beyond the limits of marginalizing labels like “identity” or “multiculturalism” and toward concerns relevant to persons of any demographic, including family dynamics, memory, and gender roles.
Gonzalez is a compelling writer whose language not only captures images vividly for general readers but also expands the lexicon of new aesthetic practices. Her analysis of Luna’s The Artifact Piece is an outstanding contribution because, like Mining the Museum, the work was such a groundbreaking installation. Perhaps his most widely known effort, the haunting and ironic 1987 performance involved the four-month display of Luna’s own body and some personal belongings as artifacts in the permanent exhibition of the...