An Interview with Sam Durant
By: Ellen C. Caldwell
Multimedia artist Sam Durant is both an activist and artist who uses his work to highlight lesser known and forgotten histories. Through his art, he helps the public to uncover and acknowledge our histories, both in order to understand how we got to the present moment historically and to offer correctives now.
Take, for example, his show “Scenes from the Pilgrim Story: Myths, Massacres and Monuments” which ran a decade ago at Blum & Poe. Featuring dioramas and figures from the defunct Plymouth National Wax Museum, the show questioned the normative white historical narrative using the very same learning tools and wax figures that had helped to construct and reinforce the original Plymouth Rock narrative. In the exhibition’s press release, Durant notes that the works in the show “are addressed primarily to white, euro-ethnic Americans, although hopefully others will also find them of interest.” He revisits the Pilgrim Story, or as he refers to it — “the Story,” in order to highlight the problematic whitewashing of history-making and storytelling:
The project’s central function is to put the mythology of the Pilgrim Story and the interests it serves into a comparative relationship with history. Works set this comparative stage in different ways; by underscoring particularly problematic aspects of the Story, by foregrounding aspects that are normally omitted from the Story, and by representing events as they were experienced and written about by those on other side of this history—namely Native Americans…The works examine the historical record as it’s been constructed by various institutions in and around the town of Plymouth, in particular the Plymouth Rock [Durant, from “Scenes from the Pilgrim Story” press release].
His recent solo show, “Build Therefore Your Own World,” just ran at Blum & Poe in Culver City, CA. Taking a similar approach to shining light on marginalized history, though through a very different exhibit, Durant continues to address the inaccuracies of the historical canon and historiography itself. In “unearthing counter storylines,” Durant juxtaposes the words and lives of white nineteenth century transcendentalists, such as Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau with African writers Phillis Wheatley and Lucy Terry and African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass. He reimagines the historical narrative to be large enough to include a more hybrid approach, thinking of famed abolitionist and transcendental writers and thinkers as they related to one another and interacted with and in colonial America.
Given the current political climate in the U.S. and abroad, as well as this age of post-truths and alternative facts, Durant’s work is both appropriate and necessary. The Hammer Museum even recently put his famous piece, End White Supremacy, back on view because of its timely nature. I caught up with Durant to discuss his process, motivations, and upcoming plans.
ELLEN CALDWELL: You revisit history in interesting and unexpected ways in your work. In this age of post-truth and “alternative facts,” this seems particularly important. What first drew you to use your art to highlight lesser known, marginalized, and forgotten histories in this way?
SAM DURANT: I grew up near Boston and as a kid saw an American Indian Movement demonstration at the Plymouth Rock that proposed a very different version of the Thanksgiving holiday—from a Native American perspective it is hardly a celebration. I was also exposed to the anti-Vietnam war movement. I remember a conscientious objector telling about some of the work he did in lieu of killing or being killed in Vietnam, like painting the same hospital walls over and over, almost like Sisyphus, with a different color each time. These sorts of childhood experiences may have shaped my interest in questioning received reality and conventional historical narratives.
CALDWELL: Process-wise, could you walk us through your exhibits a bit? Do you have a larger idea about the end experience first, or does it start with a smaller idea and grow from there? In “Build Therefore Your Own World,” for instance, visiting the gallery space was an immersive experience for visitors. Did you start off knowing you wanted it to be this way?
DURANT: Each project is different in its process, sometimes determined by the site. Is it in a public place, outside, in a museum or a gallery, what city, country, etc. The show that you refer to evolved out of the large scale public art project in Concord, MA called “The Meeting House.” I had some smaller sculptural works that dealt with race and Transcendentalism, African American literature and notions of American identity.
Through many discussions with various people including gallery director Michael Smoler (a terrific poet himself), Jeff and Tim (Poe and Blum respectively), my wife—artist Ana Prvacki, the show came together as something cohesive. The large scale work, “Build Therefore Your Own World,” evolved from these discussions. I used to work very privately and only reveal the work as it was installed. Recently I learned that you can go much farther, be clearer and frankly just plain better if you talk to people before and while you are making things.
CALDWELL: You mentioned that the show grew out of your public art project called “The Meeting House.” Will you continue to build upon your thesis from this earlier project in other upcoming shows or work?
DURANT: I hope so. There’s another group of works that move towards music, a theme that I didn’t explore much with the two projects you mention.
CALDWELL: Your medium is also unpredictable and varied. I’ve seen your work range drastically, whether in full life dioramas, as in “Scenes from the Pilgrim Story: Myths Massacres and Monuments”; or your lightbox signs with vinyl text (from “This is Freedom?”) that reinvigorate archival civil rights posters from the U.S. and Australia with new technology, light, and life; or your most recent large wooden structure in “Build Therefore Your Own World.” Is this also something that changes with the original inception for your show or work, or does the medium choice come first?
DURANT: The ideas or concepts usually come first but I cannot deny that there may be unconscious desires at work in regards to the forms that the work ultimately takes. Probably I should stick to a recognizable style or set of styles. Smart people tell me to do this.
CALDWELL: Your 2005 “Proposal for White and Indian Dead Monument Transpositions, Washington, D.C.” is a great example of your work, and in some ways it mirrors the kind of public history project that the Equal Justice Initiative is working on now in regards to marking public lynching sites and constructing a national memorial to lynching victims. I wish there was more of this in both the art world and in our public monuments and memorials. It seems it could be the only way that we both collectively learn and remember history. Given the relevancy of such works, with the ongoing fights for human rights over the Dakota Access Pipeline, have you been working on anything recently to re-address historical attitudes of the U.S. government towards Native Americans?
DURANT: At the moment no, nothing specific. I wouldn’t be surprised if this changes soon though. I did a brief talk about Jimmie Durham’s work at the retrospective at the UCLA Hammer Museum, very hard to do because his work is so moving, deep, powerful and hilarious. It’s hard to imagine doing anything myself which wouldn’t be embarrassing next to his. Although I doubt that would prevent me from trying.
CALDWELL: The way you work with collective, historical, and personal memory is really compelling and likely challenging to viewers too. How has your work been received in general, and have you seen a change in understanding or appreciation in the Trump era?
DURANT: I have been very fortunate to have a relatively high visibility in the contemporary European American art world. That said, there are obvious consequences of doing overtly political or challenging work. Since the election of 2016 I have experienced increased interest in my work. Much of it coming from galleries and institutions that have already supported my work (which is wonderful), I hope it may reach others as well.