2017-06-06 09:03:02
Dakota People Are Debating Whether to Burn ‘Scaffold’ Fragments

The four-day public dismantling of Sam Durant’s sculpture “Scaffold,” overseen by Dakota traditional and spiritual leaders, is nearly complete in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, after a week of protests, apologies and mediation involving the artist, the Walker Art Center and the Dakota people. But in an interview on Monday, the Walker’s executive director, Olga Viso, said the Dakota were debating whether the wood fragments would indeed be burned, as previously announced.

“There is discussion now within the broader Dakota community about whether it should burn or not burn,” Ms. Viso said. “We’re really clear that it’s for them to decide, not for the Walker or the artist.”

The wood-and-steel sculpture, which Mr. Durant said he created in 2012 to call attention to “the racial dimension of the criminal justice system in the United States,” recalled the gallows used in seven hangings ordered by the United States government since 1859. They include the mass execution of 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minn., the largest execution in the nation’s history, as well as the hangings of the abolitionist John Brown (1859); and the Lincoln conspirators (1865), which included the first woman executed in American history.

The Walker acquired Mr. Durant’s sculpture with the intention of installing it outdoors permanently in its renovated sculpture garden. After Native American groups denounced the insensitivity of the piece in recalling an act of genocide, Mr. Durant acknowledged his own “grave miscalculation” about how the Dakota people would receive his work. Last Wednesday, the artist transferred the intellectual property rights of his sculpture to the Dakotas, who at that time stated their plan to burn its fragments at Fort Snelling, in a healing ceremony. Janice Bad Moccasin, a Dakota prayer leader and elder, told The Minneapolis Star Tribune, “The fires help us to release negative energy and acts placed upon us.”

While some have applauded the artist’s and institution’s responsiveness to the Dakota people, others have questioned the message sent by dismantling or burning art, with its historical connotations of censorship. Against the backdrop of other recent protests calling for the removal of racially charged works at the Whitney Museum in New York City and the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis, did the Walker’s decision to yield the work create a difficult precedent for museums?

“Disposing of artworks and burning them is a pretty strong statement,” said Tom Eccles, a noted arts curator and executive director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. “Obviously, this event comes in the wake of other controversies. Where do we draw the line? The old line between harm and offense won’t do right now. I think these are mainly well-intentioned works by well-intentioned artists that caused offense both for what they contain but more significantly who said it. Are we at a point where supposedly white privileged artists should not speak of the experiences and histories of those who are not white and privileged? I think we are.”

Mr. Eccles added: “If I were a Native American or African-American, I think I’d be pretty fed up with the way my community has been portrayed, too. It’s a good thing we’re being made to feel uncomfortable. So we should be.”

Following are edited excerpts from an interview Monday with Mr. Durant and Ms. Viso.

Why didn’t you choose to stand firm by your art? Do you think that your intentions weren’t clear, or could be fairly described as insensitive?

SAM DURANT My ignorance of the meaning of Mankato gallows for the Dakota people caused this problem. I never would have used the Mankato gallows had I contacted representatives from the Dakota community in advance.

You mean in the conceptual stages of the piece?

DURANT Yes, I began the research on that work in 2006. That would have been the time to reach out to them.

Have there been objections related to other historical events referred to in “Scaffold”?

DURANT Not to my knowledge.

Did you consider removing the piece from view without destroying it?

DURANT We did.

OLGA VISO Sam always intended this piece as a platform for discussion, to facilitate understanding not just of this specific history in Minnesota but the history of capital punishment across U.S. history. When that potential to build awareness just wasn’t possible because “Scaffold” was only being read through that lens of pain and trauma for the Dakota people, that’s when we realized it needed to take a different form. While the work may not exist in its physical manifestation, it’s been remade in a way with the community.

Would your decision have been different if the work were shown inside the museum?

VISO I think the fact that it is on public land, open and accessible 365 days a year — there’s a different responsibility of artwork in civic space. That’s where I hold the Walker and myself accountable and apologize for really misunderstanding the context and impact it would have on the Dakota people.

How do each of you think this experience will affect your process in the future — as an artist and as a director?

DURANT I’ve learned a huge amount about how I need to be much more mindful and aware when I’m working with things that have to do with a minority community of any kind. My approach will be very different going forward.

VISO How we think about the decisions we make around what’s put in public space, that process needs to be examined. We need to engage broader public discussion and communities in that process. We will be working with Native artists to commission something for the campus in the coming year. We don’t want to presume that putting something in the place of “Scaffold” is the right thing to do. We want to work with the community to determine what feels right.