An American conceptual artist born in the Bronx in 1954, Fred Wilson is also a political activist. From the beginning, Wilson’s artistic practice has been guided by one question: How is it possible to pose critical questions about museum practices within a museum itself? Through site-specific art interventions in collaboration with museums and cultural institutions, Wilson has developed a strategy of infiltrating institutional structures. Yet even in his non-installation, autonomous works, Wilson’s stance is clear: He attempts to undermine the discourse-determining status of cultural institutions, almost from the inside out, by employing those institutions’ own vocabularies, concepts, and methods. His installation in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s glass box gallery brings together four different works by Wilson, giving a representative overview of his highly influential and diverse practice.
The sculpture The Mete of the Muse (2006) juxtaposes the contradictions that point out the blind spots in a hegemonic understanding of culture and history. To Die Upon a Kiss (2011) also speaks to the realization that culture is almost never homogenous and that cultural history seldom takes a linear course. The presence in and influence of African culture on the city of Venice finds eloquent expression in the form of a chandelier made of Murano glass, which transitions from luminosity and transparency to opacity and obfuscation on the underside of the blackened glass. The sculpture Ota Benga (2008) references a different confrontation between two cultures, one with far sadder consequences. In this work Wilson goes beyond retelling the story of the horrific treatment of an African man, calling attention to how museums and other cultural institutions not only display but also contribute to the discussion of conventional ideas and paradigms.
The majority of Wilson’s artistic interventions and gestures can be described as minimal, but it is precisely from this that they derive their actual power. The 35 flags (untitled (Flags), 2009) of the African and African diaspora nations that hang on the only wall of the glass box gallery are completely colorless. Only outlines are drawn in black on the bare canvas. The empty spaces indicated by the missing colors also point to the blind spots in our own perceptions.