Last fall, Los Angeles-based artist Sam Durant built The Meeting House, a temporary structure that served as the framework for several “lyceums” (lectures, performances and poetry readings) on the history of African-American relations to Concord, MA, where the project was staged. Build Therefore Your Own World, the artist’s current solo exhibition at Blum & Poe, largely stems from the activities that took place during the project’s run. The result is a densely layered, demanding installation in which disparate histories and narratives are woven together to form new, synthesized wholes.
Appearing first is Every spirit builds a house, and beyond its house a world…Build therefore your own world (2017), an enormous, four-part installation in the form of a wooden house that is constructed from the floorboards of The Meeting House. Painted on each partition are texts by four African-American poets that were commissioned for the Concord project, setting the literary-minded and racially-conscious tone of the show. These allusions to the inseparability of race from the written word are repeated elsewhere in the exhibition in works such as Erasure, Appearance (Garrison’s Walking Stick, Thoreau’s Pencil) (2016) and Transcendental (Wheatley’s Desk, Emerson’s Chair) (2016), in which items owned by Concord’s transcendentalist writers penetrate those owned by former slaves, astutely suggesting that the freedom of thought enjoyed by writers such as these and the history of black servitude are inextricably linked.
While Durant’s fused histories successfully underscore America’s centuries-spanning intractability with race, the exhibition frequently buckles under the weight of its myriad literary, cultural, social and historical references. Though these multifarious allusions reflect the complexity and uneasiness of the subjects explored here, reading of the checklist’s didactic blurbs and diagrams is a prerequisite for full engagement with them. As a result, navigating the exhibition can at times be more frustrating than rewarding.
Image: Sam Durant, Build Therefore Your Own World (Installation view). Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo. Photo: Joshua White.
Originally published by Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles, February 1, 2017