By Elisabeth Redmond
Fred Wilson’s work in museums is about context and sending a deliberate message.
Whether he is arranging objects in spaces or creating artwork labels, Wilson asks the questions that museums might not ask themselves.
In his lecture at the Nasher Museum last night, he talked about his exhibition Guarded View at the Whitney Museum of American Art. It featured four headless mannequins dressed in museum guard uniforms. He was playing on the notion that while guards are ever-present in these spaces, they are silenced, rarely heard or noticed.
Wilson himself once worked as a museum guard.
“[There’s] something funny about being a guard in a museum,” he said. “You’re on display but you’re also invisible.”
Wilson tested this theory once when asked to conduct a tour at the Whitney. He dressed up in a guard uniform and waited at the designated meeting place. As the visitors arrived, he watched them “mill” around, he said, failing to recognize the artist behind the uniform. This greatly amused him. He led the exhibition tour, still dressed as a guard, which conveyed an important idea aligned with Guarded View.
You never see a guard leading a tour, talking analytically about art, he said, but they no doubt have contributions that are rarely spoken aloud.
I talked with some of the security guards here at the Nasher Museum today. Wilson’s description of their role seems pretty accurate. Shaughn Braun, acting manager of protection services, told me that guards are supposed to be invisible. No one wants you around until something calls for intervention. So it becomes this weird interaction between the guard and the museum visitor; the guard is hardly noticed, yet observes a visitor’s every move.
“You put on that uniform and you sort of disappear,” Braun said.
I spoke with guards Jack Cooper and Mary Price as they guarded the Picasso exhibition and was interested to hear their observations of art and people. They said they were not interested in leading tours. But they agreed that constant exposure to art has given them a unique perspective on it.
“You learn a lot,” Price said, “hearing different opinions.”
New York-based artist Fred Wilson delivered the annual Semans Lecture at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University on October 27, 2009.
IMAGE: Photo of Fred Wilson by Dr. J Caldwell.