In Joseph Bryan Park in Richmond, Virginia this past Wednesday night the art collective INDECLINE completed a public performance / installation: Ku Klux Klowns. INDECLINE dressed life-sized, soft dolls in clown costumes – rainbow jumpsuits, red wigs and oversized shoes – and then put KKK sheets and hoods over them. They then took those dolls and hung them from trees with the sign, “If attacked by a mob of clowns, go for the juggler.” It was a public lynching.
The criticism of the KKK seems reasonable after the public demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia where Neo-Nazis protested. And though Donald Trump, rather begrudgingly, denounced the activities at this protest, during his campaigning and subsequent election, we have seen an increase in the dismissal of diversity or, more strongly worded, the visibility of the ideology of white supremacy (Trump’s policies toward immigration and even more recently DACA are only a few examples).
Lynching, as a performative, brutal, and political act is currently being discussed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art where The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America is on exhibition until 8 October 2017. This show pulls together works in BMA’s collection and has been coordinated through the Equal Justice Initiative with underwriting by Google. Works include Blossom by Sanford Biggers, Kara Walker’s Burning African Village Play Set with Big House and Lynching, and Titus Kaphar’s The Jerome Project (My Loss). This exhibition is part of a larger program that includes a site where video/audio, research and teaching materials can be accessed and a national monument, The Memorial to Peace and Justice, that will be unveiled in Montgomery, Alabama in 2018.
But prior to this exhibition, collectors and scholars have been interested in lynching, particularly its documentation in photography. Art collector James Allen published “Without Sanctuary,” which amassed photographs of lynching in America. His site continues to post images found after the book’s publication.
Lynching is on our minds and has been. It is a part of the history of race relations in the United States. It is unconscionable and cruel. Images of people hung from trees are gruesome to see. They remind us to never do such things again. And once you have seen one, you will never forget it.
And so INDECLINE’s installation disturbs me. As we are trying to emotionally and intellectually grasp these acts of terror, as exemplified by BMA’s and Allen’s projects, how does Ku Klux Klown fit into this larger grappling? There are so many thoughts to consider but I will present two.
First, what we perform and install in public space is different than what we see and experience in an art museum or gallery. When we go into an exhibition space, we are prepared to see the unlikely, the unthinkable, the disturbing. It is a place where we are free to let our mind discover what we would never consider. Art spaces are important because they allow us to move beyond our everyday world, hoping that new concepts seep outside their walls and influence our actions.
What is performed in public space blurs that distinction between real and unreal, possible and impossible, true and false and those actions are perceived and processed in a different way. Works in public space invade the intimacy of our commute to work or trip to the coffee shop. They are disruptive. Unlike works that you can avoid by not going to a museum, public works cannot be ignored. Public works are powerful because they create conversation. They are something you discuss with your friends, colleagues, and families. They are important. Which is why they must be thoughtful and reflect the plurality they are situated within. To my mind, Ku Klux Klowns most certainly does not do this.
Second, if we are trying to historically understand lynching, if we are trying to teach our children that tolerance is more powerful than violence, how can a work grounded on brutality be helpful? How can this do little more than incite hatred, confirm stereotypes, and breed further resentment? While public space is about sharing ideas, and, perhaps, publicly “righting wrongs,” is this the way to do it?
INDECLINE has created works in the past that have been controversial including The Emperor Has No Balls, a sculpture of Donald Trump, naked, with no balls (which I think is quite clever) but Ku Klux Klown has particular resonance for me. It borders on a visual practice that is violent in and of itself. While I believe that public art should talk about social conditions that are, at times, uncomfortable, brutality – real or imagined – will never be the productive starting point to that conversation. Race relations – which lynching is surely a part of – is too important to the future of our country.