Masked masks and whipping posts
Inspired juxtapositions of museum artifacts make Fred Wilson’s work unique

By Dorothy Robinson, Public Affairs



Fred Wilson discusses his Berkeley Art Museum installation, “Guarded View,” a group of dark-skinned mannequins sporting the uniforms worn by museum guards. The piece arose from Wilson’s observations of the ethnic compositions of museum attendees and staff. Behind him — and very much an element in the installation — a sign on the wall states “Please do not touch the work of Art.”
Noah Berger photo

29 January 2003 | If you’ve ever wondered what museum curators are thinking about when they create exhibitions, or about what they might have tucked away down in the basement, you have something in common with Fred Wilson.

Wilson, a recent MacArthur Fellow and this year’s U.S. representative to the prestigious Venice Biennale, does what artists do best — upset our notions of how things should be. Using the museum itself as his palette, he creates work that has the appearance and feeling of institutional integrity, but on closer inspection is far more perplexing.

For instance, in visiting his retrospective exhibit, “Objects and Installations, 1985 to 2000,” at the Berkeley Art Museum through March 30, one notes that Gallery B has the familiar appearance of an anthropology exhibit: The walls are painted in earthy tones, and the lights are carefully focused on a wall display of African masks and on glass cases full of artifacts. Curiosity about the masks’ origins — a typical museum-goer’s conditioned reaction — is eclipsed by the observation that they have been blindfolded with scraps of the British flag.

Across the room, a dignified group of antique upholstered chairs is arranged facing an antique whipping post. Wilson came across all of the objects while exploring the collections of the Baltimore Historical Society in 1992. The chairs were a part of the museum’s permanent collection, while the whipping post had languished in their storage facility until Wilson brought them together into one installation. The juxtaposition suggests that there is a broader history to be explored and offered to the public than the museum had previously presented.

Wilson is winding up a semester’s residency on the Berkeley campus, sponsored by the Consortium for the Arts. During this time he explored the collections of the Berkeley Art Museum and the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, and then — with the help of a team of students — created an unsettling new piece, “Aftermath,” also now on display at BAM (through July 20). A meditation on war and conflict, the installation is in part a response to the World Trade Center attack in New York, as well as to currently escalating threats of war. “It refers to the period after the violence, the aftermath of war,” says Wilson.

The students who worked with Wilson last semester also produced a collaborative piece of their own, called “Cabinet of Curiosities.” It is also on display through July 20 at BAM.

For information on the exhibitions and public programs at BAM, call 642-0808, or visit


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