“Scaffold” Sculptor Seems to Contradict Himself

“Scaffold” sculpture at the Walker Sculpture Garden.

Artists and writers who make political statements run the risk of having their past works and words come back to bite them. Such seems to be the case for Sam Durant, the artist behind the controversial sculpture “Scaffold,” which is going to be removed from the Walker Sculpture Garden.

The sculpture is supposed to be a commentary on capital punishment. The main feature is a replica of the gallows used to hang 38 Dakota men in 1862, the largest mass hanging in U.S. history. Even as it was being installed, the sculpture created pain and anger in the Dakota community. The Dakota community was not consulted in this project, one that evokes a major traumatic event for their people.

A Facebook post by my friend Genjo pointed out that a landscape art sign Durant created in 2003 appears to contradict his 2012 work “Scaffold.” The piece (an electric sign with plastic text) was sold from a private collection at a Sotheby’s auction for $10,625. The sign has black letters on a red background. [Update: The sign quotes Black Panther Emory Douglas.] It reads:

LANDSCAPE ART
IS GOOD ONLY
WHEN IT SHOWS
THE OPPRESSOR
HANGING FROM
A TREE BY HIS
MOTHERF***ING
NECK

Durant’s “Scaffold” recalls seven significant hangings, including the 1862 Dakota hanging, the 1859 hanging of abolitionist John Brown, and the last legally conducted public execution in U.S. history (Billy Bailey, 1996). If Durant truly believed what he created in 2003, would he have created “Scaffold,” which is all about hanging but does not include an oppressor? Or has his thinking evolved? Genjo wrote: ” I am genuinely fascinated by the relationship of this poster to ‘Scaffold.'”

Walt Whitman once famously wrote: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” Artists are free to change their minds or simply contradict themselves. But when controversies like this arise, their works are going to get extra scrutiny.

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