June 5, 2023

In May, a slender white fiberglass sculpture in the shape of a Predator drone will be installed on a 25-foot pole and spun in the wind on the High Line on 30th Street in New York. With a wingspan of 48 feet – almost the size of the remote-controlled military aircraft but devoid of cameras, weapons, and landing gear – the kinetic artwork could appear as a modernist bird hovering in the sky reminiscent of the biomorphic sculptures by Constantin Brancusi or Barbara Hepworth.

The work is by the American artist Sam Durant (59), who has devoted his career to research-intensive projects on war, memorials, mass imprisonment and other difficult legacies of US history. Durant’s new assignment for the High Line is his first large-scale public work since the 2017 Minneapolis controversy over his sculpture “Scaffold,” which embroiled the artist in a storm of cultural debates over whether white artists should portray painful racial narratives that weren’t necessarily to tell their own stories.

“Scaffold” was an architectural composite of gallows used in six US government-approved hangings, including the execution of 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota, in 1862. It was made for Documenta 13 in Germany in 2012 and shown there without incident as a criticism of the death penalty in America. The piece was later acquired by the Walker Art Center and installed in its Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in 2017 without reaching the people of Dakota. Members of the Native American communities in Minnesota protested what they saw as representing the Mankato gallows and a symbol of their genocide. Olga Viso, then director of the Walker, and Durant quickly agreed to dismantle Scaffold, and the artist offered intellectual property rights to the people of Dakota through a brokerage led by the tribe’s elders.

Durant originally conceived “Untitled (drone)” in 2016 when it was shortlisted along with Simone Leigh’s proposal for “Brick House” for a new monumental public art commission called the High Line Plinth, which rotates every year and a half. Cecilia Alemani, director and chief curator of High Line Art, won both artists for the first two commissions in a row at the beginning of 2018. (“Brick House” was shown in 2019.)

Durant’s pale aerodynamic piece moves and varies in visibility, which the artist is deliberately playing with. In certain weather conditions and from different angles, it can become almost invisible against the sky. “For Sam, the goal is to make the drone war that this country is waging against very distant countries visible in America,” said Alemani of the targeted murders that increased for the first time during the Obama administration.

Independent curator Pedro Alonzo, who organized three previous projects with Durant in 2019, including Iconoclasm, at Detroit’s Library Street Collective, is interested in how his drone sculpture will use weather as a metaphor for the volatile political climate. “It’s a weather vane that shows us which way the wind is blowing,” said Alonzo, adding that it “reminds us that things can change very quickly.”

In a telephone interview from his studio in Berlin, where he and his family moved from Los Angeles in 2018, Durant talked about the new project and reflected on his experiences with “Scaffold”. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What impact did the events surrounding “Scaffold” have on you?

“Scaffold” was definitely a life-changing experience and it certainly triggered a real period of reflection for me. I’ve changed some of the way I work, but I’m still committed to the same issues as before, things that are important to society.

Has it changed your approach to public space?

When working with issues related to racial injustice, one has to work with those who have experienced the injustice, especially in public art. What I learned from “Scaffold” is how powerful symbols can be to evoke strong emotions. They can be really psychologically harmful to people. I did not quite understand. You can convey the same idea by abstracting the representation in the work.

Is that why you now paid special attention to freeing the drone from its device and certain details?

Exactly, an emphasis was placed on abstracting the plane itself to really streamline it. And the base doesn’t have a solid monumental plinth, but a two-tier, tiered base so that people can sit on it and have a more interactive experience. This is a space for conversation. I was very concerned about using unmanned aircraft to murder people. It was considered popular in the United States because U.S. soldiers didn’t have to come into play. But what about the victims in the countries that were attacked by our drones? The idea was to bring this conversation to America.

When you look back on what happened around Scaffold, what was the most difficult or painful part for you?

It was really hard to be so misunderstood and attacked and characterized as a racist and terrible person who takes advantage of the suffering of others. To have my work seen by the Dakota community, whose fight against historical injustice they should support, as an attack on them has been deeply painful. I was caught between the Walker Art Center and a community of people who were deeply saddened by many, many things. I was placed in a profoundly difficult position because of the way the institution set up “scaffold” without informing anyone, without receiving input, without really understanding what this could mean for the Dakota community.

Would you do anything differently if you could?

Under exactly the same circumstances, I would do what I did again for now. What was most important to me was not my own work of art or even an abstract defense of freedom of expression, but that this was a time and place to do something meaningful for people who have suffered ongoing genocide. I realized that I should only give the work to the Dakota. They wanted to do a ritual healing process and that was the most appropriate way to get on with the work in my opinion.

What became of “Scaffold” in the end? Was it buried?

I think so. I haven’t received a notice from Dakota stating what they did with it.

When was the last time you were in touch with the various parties in Minneapolis?

I was in touch with Olga Viso before she stepped down in late 2017 and met with Mary Ceruti shortly after she took over the reins. I haven’t had any contact with anyone since then. The museum continues to refer to the matter as the “Sam Durant Scandal / Controversy” in its press releases, and I get the impression that the Walker is trying to blame me for the whole matter. To be fair, so does the art press.

You have written a statement last fall that the museum could bring together the three main actors of “Scaffold” – the Walker Art Center, the Dakota Oyate, which controls the copyright, and you yourself.

You could do this privately or publicly to try to work through what happened. There is a problem for museums and institutions to develop best practices for art in public spaces. There are also questions about the value and aspects of intellectual property rights. I welcome any initiatives in good faith that you share with me or in which you wish to involve me.

You also wrote that you hope your experience of “scaffold” does not prevent other white artists from addressing difficult issues of racial justice.

It is important that white people are involved in the dismantling of white supremacy. So many civil rights activists have urged whites to join the fight for racial equality. One of the really important things that is happening now is opening up opportunities for color artists and color curators. After generations of white supremacy in the entire art world, we are finally beginning to recognize and change this. There are many white artists who deal with racial and social justice. Those of us who have long been doing it keep doing our jobs and learning as we go.