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Art Out of Context 

by Kris Dinnison


They say you can't take it with you, but certainly what we accumulate and collect will say quite a bit about us to future archeologists. This year, Eastern Washington University's Visiting Artist Lecture Series has been examining the theme of "Collections" and what our acquisitions say about us as individuals and as a society. This week, their fifth and final visitor, artist Fred Wilson, comes to town to give his unique perspective on this idea.


"We wanted to look at collections from a variety of standpoints," explains Lanny DeVuono, associate professor and chair of EWU's art department. The first lecturer was David Mach, a Scottish artist who creates virtual monuments out of what many people would call rubbish. Mach was followed by private New York art dealer Stephen Rosenberg; Josine Starrels, who formerly curated public art collections in Los Angeles; and Beth Sellars, who currently works for the Seattle Art Commission and the alternative Suyama Space.


Now Wilson comes to town to add his voice to the melee. "Fred Wilson occupies a special place in the discussion," DeVuono explains. "He came along and started pulling out museum artifacts and rearranging them, giving us a new and sort of critical way of looking at our history."


Wilson, a native of the Bronx, has worked as an installation artist for many years. However, his work became more widely known in the early 1990s, when he created an exhibition at the Maryland Museum of Contemporary Art entitled "Mining the Museum." Wilson took art, artifacts and other museum materials and rearranged them in ways that questioned the museum's prevailing wisdom about history, particularly cultural and ethnic history.


"I would say he speaks to ethnicity and the constructions of race," muses DeVuono. "I think what's important about his work is what it reveals is a fuller sense of history for all of us. It picks up those corners that get missed by us."


Traditionally, museums have been somewhat static places that maintain a certain historical viewpoint and exhibit their collections with that viewpoint in mind. "Museums as we know them started with Napoleon's spoils of war," says DeVuono. "For a long time, you had these grand collections of artifacts that were largely procured by colonialism. Fred Wilson's art recontextualizes that." DeVuono says imperialistic fashions are changing, but slowly, and she applauds museums such as the Seattle Art Museum where a small collection of African art includes the art of colonial Africa alongside modern African artists.


"I think it's a huge issue for museums today," DeVuono insists. "It has broad-reaching importance for all of us, this idea that museums are repositories of culture."


Wilson has worked his magic in many museums throughout the world, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Seattle Art Museum, the New York Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. At each site, he has reconfigured articles from the museum's collection in order to raise questions about the power structure in our society. Spokane is certainly ripe to have an artist such as Wilson visit our community. "It's a critical time in Spokane because our own museum [the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture] has reopened," says DeVuono. "I'm hoping that Fred Wilson will raise questions." One does wonder what Wilson would make of the MAC's beautiful, but separate, treatment of Native culture, the history of the Davenport and the culture of small towns.


"That's precisely why we're so excited he's coming," DeVuono insists. She sees Wilson's work not so much as an indictment of our history, or of museums' roles in keeping history, but as a challenge to make sure that the story they are telling is true. "There's something inherently hopeful and powerful in art that says, 'Let's keep looking at it until everyone's history is heard,' " DeVuono explains. "That's why it's good to bring in Fred Wilson, because he's working in the eye of the storm, in the big museums, and asking them to take a look at what they've done."

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