New York

Sam Durant

The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, has been roundly maligned since it opened last fall, and the sheer range of critical charges—from insufficient scholarly contextualization and scattershot exhibitions to annoying electronic touch displays and too many gift shops—testifies to the difficulty of addressing Native American history in the nation’s capital. In Proposal for White and Indian Dead Monument Transpositions, Washington, DC, 2005, shown recently at Paula Cooper Gallery, Sam Durant offers an alternative commemoration of this traumatic past.

The project calls for the relocation to the Mall of thirty of the dozens of national monuments marking massacres that occurred during the “Indian Wars” of the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth. Here they would take their place alongside memorials to the fallen of World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Despite the perennially hot-button subject matter, the work reveals a quieter Durant than the one to whom we are accustomed: Formal allusions are more contained than usual and pop-cultural references all but absent, and Durant looks the stronger for it. The artist selected monuments from locations across the US that honor both vanquishers and vanquished. There are many more of the former, and he has modeled twenty-five of them in gray MDF in heights from two to twelve and a half feet, which were arranged in even rows of five in the main gallery. The remaining five replicas, monuments to the Native American dead and also in gray MDF, here stood in the front room near a wooden architectural maquette that stages the thirty monuments’ dispersal around the Mall. Durant proposes that those in honor of white dead flank two sides of the reflecting pool, while those devoted to Native Americans be placed on the lawn surrounding the Washington Monument. Also included in the show were thirty pencil drawings of the landmarks—depicted upside-down and resembling daggers. These hung across from the reception desk where the books Custer Died for Your Sins (1969) by Vine Deloria and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970) by Dee Brown were available for sale.

Durant has stripped his models of all the text and most of the texture visible in the largely faithful pencil renderings. A few are adorned with decorative folderol, and some are unusually shaped (the Little Bighorn monument is squat, the one for the Friendly Chippewa rough-hewn), but most echo the form of the sleek obelisk that honors George Washington. Memorials to those killed under the dystopic banner of Manifest Destiny are thus congruent to the one for our first President, and the maquette dramatizes the irony of this similarity. The monuments tower as one walks amid the grid, but when seen as scale models in comparison to the Washington Monument, they become miniature. Monuments in one context, objects in another: Durant’s intervention takes up the reception of Minimalist sculpture as much as it does the problem of historical memorialization.

That nothing concrete will come of Proposal for White and Indian Dead Monument Transpositions—that these monuments join the list of Durant’s other unattainable “antimonument” projects for Friendship Park in Jacksonville, Florida, and Altamont Raceway in Tracy, California—is integral to its achievement. Perhaps nothing should come of such markers, he seems to suggest: That little distinguishes the killers from the killed seems proof positive that memorializing is distinct from memory, and that commemorating past violence anywhere is a dicey enterprise. At the very least, the project’s implausibility calls into doubt the function of site-specific monuments to the dead—a skepticism that, here in New York, could not be more timely.

Lisa Pasquariello