Sam Durant at Blum & Poe Los Angeles
By: Simone Krug
For this exhibition, Sam Durant reveals the palimpsests in America’s painful racial history. Walden Pond, made famous by Henry David Thoreau, and the surrounding area of Concord, Massachusetts, are here repopulated with ghosts of the colonial and antebellum eras through contemporary poetry by African Americans––their verses are inscribed on wood boards in a true-to-scale structure mimicking the houses built by newly emancipated slaves in the northern state. Their voices, ruminations on New England’s debt to slave labor, and a eulogy to Trayvon Martin converge in this imposing architectural work, titled “Every Spirit Builds Itself a House, and Beyond Its House a World . . .Build Therefore Your Own World”, 2017. On one of the walls, poet Danielle Legros Georges writes of a landowning black man in Walden Woods: “He is divining, clearly, slipping backward through time to bring us an image of those who have lived as he will live: Bound by the law and beyond bondage.” In Durant’s wooden enclave, borders and spaces between sites as diverse as Concord, the Caribbean, and Ghana become erroneous geographic markers, as racism and complicity run deep through both space and time.
In Transcendental (Wheatley’s Desk, Emerson’s Chair), 2016, a reproduction of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writing chair is impaled through a reproduction of the desk of Phillis Wheatley, the first published African American poet, in a gesture both violent and eerie. Wheatley’s desk bears the weight of supporting Emerson’s chair. In Durant’s 2016 “Dream Map” series, Lincoln pennies are arranged on prison blankets in constellations referenced by slaves escaping to the north, connecting the legacy of enslavement to the high incarceration rates of black people in the United States. In the sites and magnitude of these traumas, we are still haunted by truths we hoped were long past.