Venice Art Walk & Silent Auctions featured artist Sam Durant on his controversial “Scaffold” and walking the tightrope of political art

By Christina Campodonico

Sam Durant’s “Scaffold” installation stirred controversy last year, but the artist is still taking strong stands on political issues

A few things keep Santa Monica-based artist Sam Durant up at night — the novels on his nightstand, our current political climate and lingering feelings of grief over a controversial piece of his called “Scaffold.”

The sculpture — a representation of seven historical gallows, including one that carried out the U.S. government-ordered execution of 38 Dakota men in 1862 — made headlines nationwide last year when Native American activists successfully rallied for its removal from the sculpture garden operated by Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center, just a two-hour drive from the site of the hangings. After mediating with the museum and Dakota elders, Durant signed over the rights to “Scaffold” to the Dakota people, who decided to bury the sculpture’s wood in a secret location. Some cried censorship. Others believed it was the right thing to do.

Durant — who has also tackled the desegregation of Boston public schools, the memorialization of Native American war heroes and the complex connection between New England’s Walden Pond and slavery in his work — is one of the featured artists in this Sunday’s annual Venice Art Walk & Silent Auction, benefitting the Venice Family Clinic.

The Venice Art Walk includes a gallery showcase and silent auction of artist-donated work at Google L.A. on Main Street, with tours of three dozen local art studios happening simultaneously during the afternoon.

For the fundraising silent auction, Durant, who used the clinic as a young and struggling artist, has created a limited-edition signed print called “Health Care for Everyone” to articulate his belief in this universal human right. The Argonaut spoke with him about the aftermath of “Scaffold” and making work that wrestles with America’s fraught sociopolitical history.

 

What attracted you to exploring darker topics of American history such as slavery, racism and oppression of marginalized groups?

I think growing up in Massachusetts near Boston in the late ’60s and ’70s, I was just surrounded by all the politics of the time — the anti-Vietnam War movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and particularly in Boston the desegregation of the public schools, which was a very big, highly contentious situation. I think I became aware of it as a very young person, that this was such
a big issue.

As a white man, how do you approach topics of race?

Well, race affects everyone. Inequality affects everyone. It affects people differently. I don’t mean to say that whites and non-whites have the same effects from inequality and systems of white supremacy. No, I don’t mean to say that at all. But, these are systems that have been set up to benefit one group of people at the expense of another. It’s gonna take all of us to dismantle those systems.

 

A year later, how do you feel about “Scaffold”?

I learned that I really need to pay a lot more attention when I pick an older work, and bring it to a new context. … I think paying attention to the context of where any work is shown is the key thing. Who are the communities and stakeholders? Because normally, I always reach out to those folks wherever I’m showing or doing a project. … That was something I didn’t do with “Scaffold.”

Have you found closure?

No, there’s not any closure on a situation like this. On the one hand, I really believe in the concept of freedom of expression and freedom of speech. Those are foundational rights that lead to all other kinds of freedoms that we have as people. … The theory is that anyone can say anything about anything; it’s just a matter of how you do it. I think with that “Scaffold” piece, the point was that I still feel like I could talk about the issue of capital punishment in U.S. history. I would just do it differently.

What I’m sorry for is that I had a public sculpture in a wonderful place in the city of Minneapolis, which I really love, that’s no longer there. I am sorry about that. That is a painful loss. I think any artist, no matter what, if your work is removed, that’s sad. That said, I think I did the only thing that I could do because I didn’t want my work to harm the Dakota community. I didn’t want them to feel traumatized, and angry, and unheard. I didn’t want my work to do that. Those are the very people that I want to support — support their struggle for justice, and coming to terms with that history, and moving forward.

There were some people in the Dakota community who saw the work as I intended it, and thought that it would be a way of raising awareness, particularly among the larger mainstream population that doesn’t know anything about our history. Part of the problem really there is that people don’t know history. We haven’t come to terms with our own history. Unfortunately, I was the messenger of that history, and often times the messenger gets attacked when people don’t like the message.

 

What’s the role of the artists in this current political moment, when we’re talking about “safe spaces” but we also have a president on the attack?

We’re not all going to agree on everything, but that’s OK. It would be boring if we did. I think artists need to fight for that. Particularly institutions now, all kinds of institutions. Institutions of art, journalism, museums, art schools, we all have to work together to try and hold space for cultural producers, filmmakers, writers, musicians, artists, everybody to do things that are difficult and maybe unpleasant, and to do that in a way that’s generous and civil. To disagree with each other but not make enemies out of each other — that’s a tricky one.

 

What do you think American leaders of the past would think of our current political climate?

It’s a very polarized moment. I think we’re in a very dangerous point. Whether the United States has been in this situation before, I don’t know. … I think one of the key things for us is to really look at our history in a real serious way. We need a truth and reconciliation process, we need reparations and restorative policy in the country. I don’t know if that’s going to happen or not, but until we do that, we’re gonna have to keep having these kinds of battles with each other.

I think art is a great place to bring up these difficult things. I think with Trump’s election, we have so much anxiety, and fear. And reacting to things that we don’t like, that artwork, or literature, whatever, provokes a strong response. I’m not going to give up. Not that I want to have something like “Scaffold” happen again. I don’t, but I’m going to keep doing the same work I’ve always done.


The Venice Art Walk happens from noon to 6 p.m. at Google L.A. (340 Main St.) and various artists’ studios throughout Venice. Visit theveniceartwalk.org for full schedule and studio tour information.

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