Episode 5 - Making the Ghost Visible

June 11, 2021


Episode 5 - Making the Ghost Visible


Glenn Ligon: In downtown Brooklyn, there’s this statue of Henry Ward Beecher, a big abolitionist. So he’s up on a big pedestal. And at his feet are two seemingly larger than life-size images of Black people.

Carrie Mae Weems: Glenn Ligon is an artist who first met David Hammons at the Studio Museum in Harlem and later watched him as he made work in the streets of Brooklyn.

Glenn Ligon: And what David is doing is putting a scarf around the neck of one of the figures at the base of the Beecher statue because it’s in the middle of a blizzard, so he’s literally putting a scarf around this Black woman’s neck and head to keep her from catching cold. 

Carrie Mae Weems: The scene Glenn is describing is from a short video made in 2007. 

Glenn Ligon: It’s not like he thought, “Let me wait for a snowstorm. And then I’ll go out to Cadman Plaza and put . . .” It just feels like, “Oh, it’s snowing. I’m going to go do something out at the statue. Call up a friend, it’s like, ‘Come videotape this.’” It has that feeling like all of his work, not premeditated. It just feels like it’s responding to a moment.

Carrie Mae Weems: David has often used modest gestures to ask big questions. Art historian Kellie Jones. 

Kellie Jones: I think he’s still pointing out the kind of inequities, not just in our country, but also just in our visual culture.

Glenn Ligon: White men get pedestals. Black folks get the base. They get to be on the ground looking up adoringly at their saviors. But it’s also a kind of acknowledgement that the past is sort of present, this image of this Black girl is present for him and needs taking care of. And so this gesture of putting a scarf around her neck in the snowstorm is that.

Kellie Jones: Hammons has really been engaged with these ideas of representation, how people of color are represented and how you can intercede in these canonical visual structures, and particularly in public space.

Carrie Mae Weems: Welcome to Artists Among Us, a podcast from the Whitney Museum of American Art. In this season, we’ve been looking at the ways that David Hammons’s sculpture Day’s End opens up new perspectives on this site. In this episode, we come back to the sculpture itself—how it makes its meaning and how it fits into the world around it—right now.

Kellie Jones: It’s really impressive to see how Hammons has really engaged this idea of monuments over time, to the point that last week we saw all these monuments just falling or being taken down.

Carrie Mae Weems: Our interview with art historian Kellie Jones happened in June of 2020. By that time, as many of you know, George Floyd had been murdered by the Minneapolis police. This resulted in unprecedented uprisings, rebellions, demonstrations, all over the country. In any number of cases, protests were targeting the symbols of white supremacy itself: the monuments, monuments that existed around the country that needed to be reexamined, understood and perhaps even removed. As Kellie Jones points out, David had already dealt with these issues, the issues of monuments, and the problem of monuments in his earlier work.

Kellie Jones: What Public Enemy is, it’s part of the show Dislocations that the Museum of Modern Art, 1991 and ‘92, installations by seven artists, curated by Robert Storr.

Carrie Mae Weems: According to MoMA, Dislocations “leads us to question some of the familiar mental landmarks by which we orient our thinking.”

Kellie Jones: Hammons’s piece is called Public Enemy. He creates this kind of three-dimensional photo mural. It’s really like a box with photos of this sculpture from all angles, or at least from four angles.

Carrie Mae Weems: Curator Tom Finkelpearl.

Tom Finkelpearl: He took four photographs of the sculpture that's in front of the Museum of Natural History, which is of Teddy Roosevelt, and on either side of Teddy Roosevelt it’s meant to represent the continent of Africa and the continent of the Americas, so it’s a Black figure and a Native American figure.

Kellie Jones: He creates a box, puts it in the Museum of Modern Art, and then hides it in some ways behind sandbags, police lines. And he recreates, in some ways, this famous sculpture of Theodore Roosevelt, the twenty-sixth president of the United States, previously governor of New York, which sits outside of the American Museum of Natural History.

Carrie Mae Weems: Mabel Wilson is a professor at Columbia University and an architect.

Mabel O. Wilson: So, there he is broad-chested, reining his horse. And on one side is an Indigenous person with their rifle down and then on the other side is an African with a rifle up. And so it’s clearly a narrative of conquest. The conquest of civilization.

Kellie Jones: Again, we see, the white figure that is on high and the figures of color who are lower than. And of course, from art history, theorizations, formula analysis, the white male is at the apex of the whole thing.

Carrie Mae Weems: The sculpture was somewhat disorienting. Its center was a large box, depicting images of monuments, with police barricades and balloons surrounding it. It was celebratory and ominous, messy and unclear.

Mabel O. Wilson: I think the Hammons piece is really sort of pointing out like these stakes of like, we don’t live in a public sphere that’s in fact about the representation, per se, of freedom and equality. It speaks to freedom and equality for some. And then speaks about your inferiority and your absence of rights in the public sphere.

Tom Finkelpearl: What David did in that environment was then surround that big huge photograph, which was in the middle of the room with sandbags, and then as if, you know, there’s sort of like a war going on, which there kind of is, around that sculpture and then balloons . . .

Mabel O. Wilson: There is this kind of posture of defense, that’s clearly around protecting it, could be one version. There’s the sort of celebration and the streamers around it.

Tom Finkelpearl: . . . as if there was a party going on.

Mabel O. Wilson: I think that the Hammons work, in my mind, sort of speaks to the entrenchment, actually, of that white supremacy and the protection of those representations in the public sphere, because they’ve become so commonsensical. How could you not see the beauty? How could you not see Roosevelt as a great man? How can you not sort of celebrate this as our shared set of values of what it means to be an American, without understanding how deeply embedded racialization is, even I would say in the category of the aesthetic?

Kellie Jones: The fact that it is called Public Enemy, he’s saying that the enemy is really the imperialist figure in Roosevelt, but of course, Public Enemy is, at that point, a well known hip hop band, and reusing that term because Black people, people of color are always seen as the “public enemy.”

Mabel O. Wilson: The notion that even speaking and pointing out the problematic nature of those kinds of representations, the fact that we actually do live in a highly racialized, racist society, you then become an enemy. You become the enemy. You become the problem. You become the racist. And it’s exactly the logic. That is domination. That is how you dominate someone. Right? That you’re always flipping the script. You’re always changing the narrative. It’s bullying, essentially. But that’s what domination does, to the point there’s no way to move. It’s a kind of psychic violence, so that you have no way to turn.

Kellie Jones: There’s a certain ambivalence there, that you’re really not sure, what the “message is.” It’s not like he has texts that say, “Oh, I can’t stand Theodore Roosevelt.” No. And then there’s balloons, there’s other things. So you don’t know if it’s a celebration, it’s a demonstration, it’s unclear, but he leaves it up to the audience. He’s not going to tell you what these things are. He’s going to listen to see what you have to say about it, which for him is the much more interesting approach.

What do you see? How does this make you feel? I would say that even if, with our 2020 vision, we can look and see, wow, how amazing that he’s been engaging monuments. And this is something that we’re engaging right now, the subtleness, and the sideways approach, to these type of ideas.

Mabel O. Wilson: I would say, along with the questions of aesthetics, form, the language of form, the work that monuments, I think, in the West do, are express power. They mark time. They mark place. They often are material and linguistic expressions of a set of values of a group of people at a moment in time. You know, one of the challenges is how long does the interpretation of that meaning, essentially, last over time? And I do think there’s a way, and this is the kind of way in which, how we think about knowledge and the past and history and the West. It’s timeless. It’s universal. So, built into our way of knowing the world is, “Well, really all of the world is that way.”

Adam D. Weinberg: A monument suggests something that is out of time. It’s something that is beyond time.

Carrie Mae Weems: Adam Weinberg is the Whitney’s director.

Adam D. Weinberg: Recently a lot of artists have been questioning the notion of a monument. There’s An-My Lê for example, is one artist who comes to mind who was in a recent Whitney Biennial and the artist Ken Lum has also been focusing on this. He’s been known for exploring the concept of monuments and he’s cofounded an organization, I guess it’s sort of a think tank, called the Monument Lab.

Ken Lum: We speculate on future monuments. At the same time, we study the behavior of monuments, our expectations of monuments, the iconography of monuments. We ultimately try to unfix the fixed notions we have of monuments.

I was new to Philadelphia in 2012 and I was walking around this city. I started noticing this very uneven inventory of monuments. Philadelphia has over a thousand statues, for example, and not until 2017, was there a full-size historical African American figure that was officially sanctioned. Philadelphia is forty percent African American. This is the city of Marianne Anderson, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, you name it. There’s a lot of incredible figures here, and yet none of them have statues that memorialize them.

Where a light bulb hit my head was the Rocky Balboa statue, which is obviously a fictional character from the movie Rocky, graces a very hallowed site at the base of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But Philadelphia is also home to a real heavyweight champion, Joe Frazier, who beat Muhammad Ali in some brutal fights decades ago.

Yet to this day, there’s no officially sanctioned statue of Joe Frazier in Philadelphia. There’s no public memorialization of a true heavyweight champion, but there is one of a fictional one who’s white. There’s lots of stories like that.

The critique of monuments . . . It’s about the crisis of representation. What can we believe in and what can we not believe in?

Adam D. Weinberg: David always believes that our works are multi-valent. That they don’t have singular readings. He does not want to tell people what to believe either verbally or through work itself. So he’s always leaving things open and the notion of his work is always about questioning rather than making declarative statements. He never explains why he decided to take on the Roosevelt monument, but he is always thinking about the positioning of the public artworks and relationship to public institutions. That’s something that’s not uncommon is the notion of how art enters the public sphere.

Carrie Mae Weems: In Public Enemy, David did take aim at the Roosevelt monument’s overt racism. But in retrospect, there was a lot more to it than that. Maybe that crazy, kind of awkward party celebrated the end of all those ideas wrapped up in the European tradition of monuments—that timelessness, that universality, that sense of victory that was all an illusion.

An-My Lê: I have a problem with monuments in general. I think that monuments tend to simplify things and essentializing something and they’re kind of meant to fail in a way, because probably they will speak and inspire some people, but I don’t think that it speaks to all people always. I thought the Statue of Liberty would speak to all people and obviously it’s not. So I think that the notion of monuments are efforts that are probably set to fail. The corny, the reductive, someone will hate them. 

Adam D. Weinberg: Around the time of Trump’s election, artist An-My Lê took some incredible photographs of Confederate monuments, often after they’d been removed from their original site, in storage facilities.

She was working in New Orleans at the time when all the Robert E. Lee and many of the other Confederate statues were being taken down.

So it’s that sense of displacement and the notion of what is there to represent and how are we represented in the public sphere? It’s very different than David’s work itself. But where they coincide is with the notion of questioning. Questioning is what is public art?

An-My Lê: The monuments came down, and they were at first done very secretly and mysteriously at night. Unmarked vans were used, the date was never posted. I was teaching at the time and so it was always very difficult to plan the timing and be there when it happened. And even though I tried it multiple times, I basically missed the removal of Beauregard and Robert E. Lee and General Davies. But I persisted. And so eventually in the summer of 2016, I was able to gain access to the Homeland Security storage where those monuments were actually kept, and it was actually so much more interesting, to tell you the truth, to see those monuments enormous being kept in something so simple as plywood storage in one case and something much more industrial in another case.

So I was able to photograph Robert E. Lee and Beauregard in plywood storage, and Davies was in another industrial storage.

It is so clarifying to see them away from the pedestal being kept and stored just like anything else. Their monumentality is still ever-present.

Adam Weinberg: What do we put out in the public sphere to represent history? What is history itself? Who tells history? Who owns history? Those are the kinds of questions that An-My and David are both addressing from radically different perspectives with radically different means.

Carrie Mae Weems: In Day’s End, David makes a kind of counter narrative, a counter proposal, a totally different model for using public sculpture to embody communal meaning. 

Adam D. Weinberg: When I asked him in a meeting years ago, “Is it a monument?” I said, “It’s really sort of an anti monument in a way.” 

Carrie Mae Weems: As a reminder, the sculpture started as a sketch, an outline of the building that rested on Pier 52, across the West Side Highway from the Whitney. That sketch has finally been transformed into a work of sculpture, massive but without volume. 

Guy Nordenson is the structural engineer who oversaw the construction of Day’s End

Guy Nordenson: It’s so mysterious. What the heck is this thing? My hope and what I tried really hard to achieve on our end is that every piece of it is really, really skinny, barely there so that the spirit and the ghostlike quality of it, hopefully, will be very clear. 

An-My Lê: For me, I think, as a photographer, the way to access history is to be specific, to describe things in details, to really go in there and dig deep and try to be certain I know what I’m talking about.

Day’s End is extraordinary in the sense that it’s so minimal and it’s a skeleton. It has no details except the structure, the shape, the line of the building. 

Carrie Mae Weems: Adam Weinberg is the Whitney’s Director. 

Adam D. Weinberg: What is it? It is a description in space. It is a drawing in space. It is an implied volume by the simplest and smallest number of linear elements that gives you the impression of a very large warehouse space. And yet nothing is actually enclosed except air. 

Ken Lum: Somehow it succeeds even more so because we don’t notice it in a funny way until you walk away from it. 

Mabel O. Wilson: And so, I think it marks time and space in a very kind of light way. It’s very ephemeral and fleeting. And that’s more of a counter monument than it is within the idiom and the language of the Western monument.

Carrie Mae Weems: Architect Catherine Seavitt worked closely with Guy. 

Catherine Seavitt: I guess for me that word “monument,” it always just sounds really heavy. Like it’s made out of bronze, or stone, or it has a lot of self-weight. So it’s interesting to think about this piece as a monument, because it’s truly so ephemeral and light, and really almost . . . it almost floats, right? It seems to be almost in defiance of gravity, and that heaviness that we so often associate with the word monument.

Monuments are often so specific, also. They’re about a very particular date in history, or about a very specific event. And they tend to mark that place, or that person, or that date. And I think what’s profound is to not have all of those singular associations. As opposed to it being totally specific, it actually opens up to being completely indeterminate. More than even a counter proposal, it’s a contrarian position that says it’s not about this. It’s not about one single thing, but it’s about an infinite number of things, possibly.

I think there’s something very comforting about this thing, this presence of this ghost of the past that brings back another time, but it’s also looking forward. So, it’s not nostalgic in many ways.

Glenn Ligon: I think the sort of here- and there-ness, here- and there-ness in the sense of here, but not here at the same time, is a lot of what David’s work is about. David making things that have this enormous presence but are also kind of ghostly, they’re not here.

Carrie Mae Weems: Day’s End doesn’t have any one story to tell, any single history to celebrate. It’s an absence, a frame of a building that no longer exists. But it’s so rooted in its site at the meeting point of the city and the river that we might also see that absence as an opening—a space for the many absences and invisible histories of this place to speak.

Carrie Mae Weems: Professor Kellie Jones.

Kellie Jones: I think with this piece and with some of these others, it’s really about meditating on that absence, on that invisibility. Is it an invisibility of people, of housing? Of certainly thinking about Native American sovereignty in those spaces. That kind of empty framework makes us think about what was there, not just last week, not just ten years ago, but generations ago, before New York. And the fact that it’s empty, and there’s just a framework, really, I think takes us to that place of kind of starting over. 

Elegance Bratton: In the ruins of the past comes the seeds of the future, like literally seeds coming everywhere. 

Carrie Mae Weems: Filmmaker Elegance Bratton. 

Elegance Bratton: So when I walk through this space, I think about, you know, the people who’ve been lost to time in this space.

Carrie Mae Weems: Activist Stefanie Rivera. 

Stefanie Rivera: And that’s going to bring a lot of feelings for a lot of people that were from over here, or who got to be here, and got to experience it. I think sometimes we don’t give enough credit to like landmarks that existed. And I think it’s important that we, you know, try to hold onto a little bit of that before it’s all completely gone.

Mabel O. Wilson: So, those spaces have their own memory. 

Carrie Mae Weems: Professor Mabel Wilson.

Mabel O. Wilson: And so the piece sort of feels like just a brief glimmer outline of what happened there. But just a very faint marking. Not a reconstruction. Not a recreation. But a kind of marking of what happened there.

Curtis Zunigha: You don’t have to read the Encyclopedia Britannica to learn about the history of this place. If you can open yourself, it comes to you.

Carrie Mae Weems: Activist Curtis Zunigha.

Don’t let the Encyclopedia Britannica, or Wikipedia, tell you that we are no longer here.

Carrie Mae Weems: Artist Glenn Ligon. 

Glenn Ligon: I think David’s aware of the history of this site and what it was and what it is now. And his project is a kind of . . . It’s about a ghost. It’s like any urban space changes over time, but the ghost of what it was is still there. And I think that’s what he’s doing in this project, is making the ghost visible.

Narrator: Thank you for being with us for the last episode of our five-part series. Artists Among Us is a podcast from the Whitney Museum of American Art. If you’re downtown near the Whitney and the High Line, come see the sculpture that inspired the series, David Hammons’s Day’s End.

To learn more about the voices you have heard here, please visit whitney.org/podcast. You’ll also find Artists Among Us wherever you get your podcasts. If you’ve enjoyed listening, please rate the show and share it with your friends.

Special thanks to the artist, David Hammons, whose vision made this project possible.

And thank you to our host, artist Carrie Mae Weems.

Thank you to the City of New York, the Keith Haring Foundation, Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund and Robert W. Wilson Charitable Trust and the many donors for their generous support to realize David Hammons’s Day’s End, and a special thanks to the Joan Ganz Cooney and Holly Peterson Foundation and the Marlene Nathan Meyerson Family Foundation for their support towards the creation of this podcast, Artists Among Us.

Additional thanks to our podcast contributors: Kellie Jones, Tom Finkelpearl, Mabel O. Wilson, Adam D. Weinberg, Ken Lum, An-My Lê, Guy Nordenson, Catherine Seavitt, Andrew Berman, Elegance Bratton, Stefanie Rivera, Curtis Zunigha, and Glenn Ligon.

Special thanks also to Kyle Croft, Alex Fiahlo, George Comenske, Jonathan Kuhn, Gina Morrow, Elle Necoechea, Sofia Ortega-Guerrero, Aliza Sena, Stephen Vider, Sasha Wortzel, and Liza Zapol, as well as Jackie Foster, and Helena Guzik.

Original music for Artists Among Us and Day’s End was created by Daniel Carter with Federico Ughi and collaborators.

This podcast was produced by SOUND MADE PUBLIC, with Tania Ketenjian, Katie McCutcheon, Jeremiah Moore, Mawuena Tendar, and Philip Wood. It was produced in collaboration with the Whitney Museum of American Art, including Anne Byrd and Emma Quaytman.