Daniel Grant: Throughout your career, you have gravitated toward
political issues and voices ignored by history. Large-scale pieces
such as Labyrinth (2015) in Philadelphia, Proposal for White and
Indian Dead Monument Transpositions, in the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Scaffold might
be described as anti-monuments. Would that be a fair assessment?
Sam Durant: Over the years, I have done several works in the
form of proposals for monuments. One thing this does is underscore that our existing monuments and memorials usually tell
only one side of the story. In that sense, my sculptures might be
considered anti-monuments, although I would never intend for
them to be built. It’s about the idea of putting forward another
view on our history.
DG: Does your work offer a historical critique?
SD: I think so. On the level of subject matter, there’s a critique of
received history or a questioning of that history, and on a broader
or more general level, the works might offer a meta-critique
of history itself that viewers could extend to other histories not
referred to in any one work.
DG: Historical subjects, especially those removed from present-day
concerns or about non-American subjects, might seem a stretch
to some viewers. For instance, one of the Black Flag works (2011),
an unfinished marble image of Mexican journalist and activist
Enrique Flores Magón (1877–1954), asks people to care about someone they’ve never heard of. Similarly, Aboriginal Rights Demonstration, Sydney, 1972 (2009) or 1905, Japan Defeats Russia,
Empire (2015) seem like curiosities. Why do you pick such deliberately obscure subjects?
SD: I think it’s possible for people to relate to things once they know
about them. A big part of our problems today in American society
comes from the lack of education, awareness, and knowledge
of history. Many people have said in different ways that history
is not about the past, it’s about the present. It’s very important to
remember and to keep alive the spirits of our past, both good and
bad. Remembering fights against the repressive aspects of our pres-
ent society, against the idea that things can only be the way they
are, opens the door to imagining a different, perhaps better world.
DG: Do you expect that your work will prompt viewers to get angry,
research a subject, write their congressman, donate to a charity?
When the subject is a war between Japan and Russia 112 years ago,
what do you assume reactions will be?
SD: Experience has shown me that viewers who are intrigued
or interested in the subject matter of a work will seek out more
information and then share their views with others—in other
words, a discourse begins. People have always done that when
they’ve seen an artwork, read a novel, or seen a film that interested them or moved them somehow. To me, that is the wonder
of how culture operates; it’s a back and forth, a discourse that
keeps us all more alive. When I show my work, I always include
a statement about the issues in the subject matter, historical factors, and other relevant information. I try to be very neutral in how
I write the statement, if that’s possible. I try not to tell people
how to think or feel about the work. Looking at and interpreting
an artwork is an internal process for the viewer, to find what I
would call the “poetic” aspect of the work and the experience of
it. You need a certain amount of information about what you are
looking at in order to begin an interpretation. The trick for me is
to find a balance of just the right amount of information in order
to allow the viewer’s own imaginative powers to be activated.
I don’t want to force people to adhere to my particular view on
any given subject; I want to allow space for them to find their
own energy around the material. It is a balancing act. You give
Proposal for White and Indian Dead Monument Transpositions, Washington,
D.C., 2005. MDF, fiberglass, foam, enamel, acrylic, basswood, balsa wood,
birch veneer, and copper, 30 monuments, installation view.