Objects that Manifest the Contradictions of American History
Sam Durant’s exhibition Build Therefore Your Own World at Blum & Poe examines and creates points of connection between the transcendentalists and African Americans.
By: Jennifer Remenchik
When entering the main gallery of Sam Durant’s Build Therefore Your Own World at Blum & Poe, the viewer literally walks into the exhibition’s namesake piece, a massive yet simple installation that takes up the entirety of the room. The title, “Every spirit builds itself a house, and beyond its house a world…Build therefore your own world” (2017), comes from an 1836 essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson, an abolitionist and leader of transcendentalism, which was a 19th-century American philosophical movement that emphasized the self over the group, subjective intuition over objective empiricism, and advocated that man is at his best when at his most independent.
Durant’s room-sized piece is a deconstructed house, based on the floor plans of the first homes occupied by freed slaves in Revolutionary Massachusetts; it’s also a repurposed sculpture, built from what were previously the floorboards of “The Meeting House” (2016), a site-specific outdoor installation Durant worked on during a three-month stay in Concord, Massachusetts, that played host to several “lyceums,” public events for the discussion of African American poetry, spirituality, and a potluck picnic. Lining the interior of the sculpture are texts written by contemporary African American writers (Tisa Bryant, Danielle Legros Georges, Robin Coste Lewis, and Kevin Young), many of them derived from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), a seminal transcendentalist text. The book details Thoreau’s experience living in a cabin near Walden Pond, on land owned by his close friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. Walden is a masterpiece about self-reliance and freedom built on the economic and racial privileges afforded by land ownership and slavery. In using it as a starting point for their own work, the writers emphasize the contradictions of history while employing their own agency to frame it.
Moving further into the exhibition, objects and histories become literally indivisible, as evidenced in the sculptures “Erasure,” “Appearance (Garrison’s Walking Stick, Thoreau’s Pencil),” “Transcendental (Wheatley’s Desk, Emerson’s Chair),” and “‘God wills us free’ (John Jack’s Epitaph, Thoreau’s Flute)” (all 2016). In each, a replica of an item from a transcendentalist intersects with an item from an African American of the same time. Phillis Wheatley was an enslaved teenager in Boston who, in 1773, while still a slave, became the first published African American poet. Her desk supports Emerson’s chair, asserting the reality that his writing practice and personal freedoms were supported by her oppression. However, the desk also ties the chair to the ground, mirroring the way in which the harsh truths of slavery contradicted a core transcendentalist assertion that people and nature are inherently good. Her desk cuts through his chair, her experience interrupting his theory and rendering it feeble by comparison.
In this particularly successful piece, a deeply American paradox is made visible and begs a question. How do we reconcile that the same sense of self-reliance and individualism that forged American revolutionary ideals such as religious freedom, and that moved transcendentalists to support the abolitionist and suffragette movements, has also led to the extreme forms of racism, misogyny, nationalism, and Islamophobia we see so clearly today? The danger inherent in everyone building their own world is that some of us are truly horrific architects.
One salient aspect of the exhibition lies not in the work itself, but in viewers’ reactions to it. Durant has long been invested in the excavation of lost American histories, and, as such, there are many accompanying texts to the exhibition outlining the narratives of chosen materials. Many times when mentioning the show to others, I was met with a scoff or a grimace, followed by a declaration that the work was “didactic” and that there was “too much to read.”
To be sure, Durant’s show does not make for an easy walk-through; it takes time and thought to process. But when paying attention to the complexity of black American histories becomes “too much work” in the mind of the viewer, I can’t help but wonder if it’s part of the same general mentality that led to the appeal of a demagogue like Donald Trump.
In looking for some measure of light in what can be a frighteningly timely exhibition, I reflect on a series of easily overlooked yet poignant works: three blankets hung directly on the wall, two from prison and one from the military, all dotted carefully with pennies that carry the face of the great emancipator. Their title, the Dream Map series (2016), leads to inevitable associations with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
The coins map out three versions of one constellation, Ursa Minor (the Little Dipper), which contains Polaris (the North Star) — the same star that enslaved people often followed as they navigated north to freedom. The women and men who made that journey were working on a principle that’s in scarce quantity today, but that we nevertheless must cling to, the same principle our first African American president, Barack Obama, ran on: hope.