Would you invite a stranger to your home specifically to pass judgment on it? Would you allow him to stay for weeks and encourage him to analyze your housekeeping, personal hygiene, entertainment habits, and recreational pursuits–in short, to criticize your “life-style”?
That’s what museums ask Fred Wilson to do. Wilson, a New York-based independent curator and installation artist, has developed a reputation for what he calls “interventions,” installations that analyze and comment on what museums acquire and show. This week he takes on the Museum of Contemporary Art, which has commissioned him to create an intervention in conjunction with its upcoming “Under Development: Dreaming the MCA’s Collection,” which opens tomorrow.
Wilson’s piece is the first in the MCA’s series of “Op-Ed” programs, which, in an inversion of standard order, will allow artists to evaluate the work of the museum.
Fred Wilson first gained national attention in 1992 with his “Mining the Museum” show at the Maryland Historical Society. There Wilson rearranged items from the museum’s permanent collection into witty, provocative, and ironic commentary. In a subtle but powerful statement about how society casually accepts inhuman behavior, handcrafted 18th-century silver urns were displayed in a vitrine next to crude, rusty shackles used in the contemporaneous slave trade above the legend: “Metalwork 1723-1880.”
In another piece Wilson set the museum’s heroic bronze busts of Napoleon Bonaparte, Henry Clay, and Andrew Jackson at floor level; monumental pedestals stood beside them, empty save for plaques bearing the names of such Maryland natives as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. The piece asks why images of white male historical figures–who likely had no connection to the state–were deemed appropriate for collection while actual Marylanders, particularly those of African descent, appear to be irrelevant.
In preparation for his work at the MCA, Wilson has spent the last month delving into the archives of Chicago’s museums and dining with the city’s most prominent art collectors. He says he is dazzled by the modern and contemporary art here. Perhaps so dazzled that last week he still wasn’t quite sure what he was going to create. He says he’ll combine pieces from MCA’s collection with those of other local institutions to provide his “impressionistic” take on the city’s art resources and the MCA’s reflection of them.
One of the difficult issues Wilson will have to address is the elusive nature of the MCA’s collection. The MCA has been housed since the late 1960s in a converted bakery on East Ontario Street, and its limited gallery space has always been given over to changing exhibitions; none of its permanent collection is permanently on view. As a result, there’s no MCA experience parallel to visiting a favorite work like Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte at the Art Institute or the coal-mine exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry.
“People regard us as a Kunsthalle,” says Richard Francis, chief curator at the MCA, “and they will until we have permanent exhibition space.” The MCA’s resemblance to a temporary exhibit hall should be diminished in 1996, when the new MCA building will be completed on Chicago Avenue. But for now its permanent collection remains a mystery to most Chicagoans.
Inviting Fred Wilson in to do his thing is a gutsy move even if his previous works have shown him to be a constructive rather than vindictive critical voice. Francis doesn’t seem particularly worried. “It’s a risk worth taking,” he says. “Museums are always accused of hegemonic curatorial practices.” And the Op-Eds are a way of challenging that. “This isn’t a Trojan horse that we’ve inserted lightly,” he says. “It’s one that should get all of us to think and to act.”
Fred Wilson’s Op-Ed will be on display tomorrow through August 21 at the MCA, 237 East Ontario St. He will give a lecture on his work Friday, May 6, at 6 PM at the museum. Tickets to the lecture are $5, $3 for members, students, and seniors. Admission to the museum is $4 for adults, $2 for students and seniors; members and kids under 12 get in free. The MCA is open Tuesday through Saturday 10-5 and Sunday noon to 5. Call 280-5161.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.