Subject to Display: Reframing Race in Contemporary Installation Art

2008
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Over the past two decades, artists James Luna, Fred Wilson, Amalia Mesa-Bains, Pepón Osorio, and Renée Green have had a profound impact on the meaning and practice of installation art in the United States. In Subject to Display, Jennifer González offers the first sustained analysis of their contribution, linking the history and legacy of race discourse to innovations in contemporary art. Race, writes González, is a social discourse that has a visual history.  The collection and display of bodies, images, and artifacts in museums and elsewhere is a primary means by which a nation tells the story of its past and locates the cultures of its citizens in the present.

 

All of the five American installation artists González considers have explored the practice of putting human subjects and their cultures on display by staging elaborate dioramas or site-specific interventions in galleries and museums; in doing so, they have created powerful social commentary of the politics of space or power of display in settings that mimic the very spaces that they critique. These artists' installations have not only contributed to the transformation of contemporary art and museum culture, they have also linked Latino, African American, and Native American subjects to the broader spectrum of historical colonialism, race dominance, and visual culture.

 

From Luna's museum installation of his own body and belongings as "artifacts" and Wilson's provocative juxtapositions of museum objects to Mesa-Bains's allegorical home altars, Osorio's condensed spaces (bedrooms, living rooms; barbershops, prison cells) and Green's genealogies of cultural contact, the theoretical and critical endeavors of these artists demonstrate how race discourse is grounded in a visual technology of display.

 

 "What better way to understand the agency of display than through a close reading of works that do what they are about. With brilliance and grace, Gonzalez reveals the performative force of installations that restage in order to subvert the visual, material, and institutional practices that sustain race discourse."

-Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, author of Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums,and Heritage


"Subject to Display provides a historical record of a crucial body of visual art work and a theory of how this work effectively interrogates the formation of race in US culture. It also critiques the very terms through which 'identity' has been debated and often reified in both visual art practices and museum cultures. Subject to Display is an intelligent and crucial contribution to the understanding of racial discourse and visuality in late twentieth- and twenty-first century American culture."

-Amelia Jones, Pilkington Chair, Art History & Visual Studies, School of Arts, Histories and Cultures, University of Manchester, author of Irrational Modernism: A Neurasthenic History of New York Dada

 

"The intense moment of theorization of identity concepts developed in the nineties has apparently been brushed aside. Gonzalez provides a riveting response to the identity debate, making the case that it is time to refocus on its central questions. Subject to Display shows how certain artworks are capable of dismantling identity's monolithic qualities by interrogating the conditions under which identity has been created and sustained."

-Alexander Alberro, author of Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity