Fred Wilson is featured prominently in the newly renovated foyer of the New York Historical Society, which re-opened to the public in November last year. If you have experienced a Wilson installation, you will know they are sparse and poignant, juxtaposing disparate elements to create new contexts or relabelling works to further enhance their meaning. He takes his role as artist-curator seriously and embraces the autonomy that it allows. His is an interpretive history lesson that challenges a white mainstream view, and that of those who claim proprietorship of history.
This permanent work, Liberty Liberté (2011), recontextualizes how liberty was interpreted by the founding fathers of America, symbolically juxtaposing emblems of the American and French Revolutions by using busts of George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1789, Washington took the oath of office as the president of the United States in front of Federal Hall, New York, which had a wrought iron balustrade that is here represented as a fragment. Wilson has selected two busts of the President to place on display, one representative of Washington wrapped in a Greek robe, and the other a plaster cast of him in civilian clothes. In this portrait, Washington has a slight scowl, exemplifying a stern and stoic side of the founding father. In these two renditions of Washington, Wilson implies a complexity of character. A three-quarter view bust of Napoleon faces the front of the installation. Wilson’s intent: to contrast the lofty ideals of the French Revolution with that of America’s aspiration for freedom. The ultimate issue raised is liberty for whom.
The United States was founded for the most part by outcasts and the disenfranchized, although there was a gentry class to which George Washington belonged. France was instrumental in the liberation of the US from Britain, but if liberty was exalted as a goal for the colonies it was certainly not true for the Africans in bondage and the Native Americans. It is curious in this display that the Native American populace is not represented; however the figure of a black cigar store statue is used to represent the common man speaking to power.
At the rear of Liberty Liberté are iron shackles indicative of America’s enslaved population at the climax of the American Revolution and dissolution of British control. These shackles only allude to the horror of this ‘Peculiar Institution’ (a euphemism for slavery). One is left to speculate about the rest. To the far right is a portrait of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Haitian revolutionary considered the founding father of Haiti – Washington’s counterpart, if you will, for the blacks in the New World. This exploration of the back-story to power in the Americas brings to light a whole new discussion of liberty in reference to history.
To the left of the installation are metal decals worn by slaves to connote their professions – porter, servant etc. – that they were forced to wear in order to travel from one area to another without being harassed or murdered. Abolitionist coins – one of which exclaims ‘Am I not a woman?’ – are displayed as well; this is the only reference to women in Wilson’s installation – a small, yet significant, part of the installation
The everyman black figure – a 19th-century cigar store statue that served as advertisement at the shop of Thomas Brooks – was donated to the Historical Society by Elie Nadelman, a Polish-American sculptor. Wilson explains that Nadelman was influenced by folk art and even has a piece at the Museum of Modern Art entitled Man in the Open Air (1915) that was possibly modelled after this black figurine. Covering the hand of this statue is a conical, fire-engine-red Phrygian cap, similar to the caps worn by the French revolutionaries.
Wilson weaves emblems in and around the notion of liberty, allowing the viewer to complete the puzzle. This is his first permanent installation since his forays into ‘mining’ museums began in the 1990s. Commissioned originally in 2006 by the Historical Society for a project focused on the history of slavery, Liberty Liberté resonated with the director of the museum and hence installed permanently. Looking at the museum’s Robert H. and Clarice Smith New York Gallery of American History, it seems possible that its curators may have taken a leaf from Wilson’s approach to installations. This display chronicles the early history of New York and its involvement in the Revolutionary War. Interestingly enough blacks, Native Americans and women are represented alongside memorabilia, portraits and busts of noteworthy early white Americans; an inclusive aesthetic Wilson has embraced throughout his career.