Sam Durant’s Iconoclasm: The Construction and Destruction of Art as a Social Practice

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  • Rachel Harris-Huffman
  • June 23, 2021

Credit: Eoin Carey

The artist’s work, currently on display at Glasgow International, examines the role of art as social action and how it reflects the evolving values ​​of society

Arts Writers is a new collaborative initiative from Glasgow International, Glasgow School of Art and The List, where students in the Glasgow School of Art’s Master of Letters in Art Writing program write features and reviews of works at this year’s Glasgow International. The authors and critics are cared for and published via The List. The next work in this series is a feature on Sam Durant’s Iconoclasm by Rachel Harris-Huffman.

Art has always been a socially engaged practice, from cave paintings that served as cultural and shamanic symbols; Protest signs and songs; to temporary spaces created for dinner and dialogue. Sometimes socially committed works can push the definition of art beyond its traditional boundaries by actively engaging with political positions, preferring ethics to aesthetics and social change over archiving. The creation of memorials and memorials for people and events is an art form as a social action that celebrates and models the heroes and behaviors of a dominant class. They are often made from durable materials like bronze and marble, but these works and the ideals they represent – especially those that are displayed in public places – have a lifespan.

Many works of art as a social action can be seen as part of Glasgow International. Martine presents Syms in the tram S1: E4 their ongoing video series YOU MADthat questions “the sign of blackness in the public imagination”. A film and audio work by Alberta Whittle in business as usual: hostile environment at Glasgow Sculpture Studios reflects the colonial history of the Forth & Clyde Canal and how the city’s infrastructure continues to influence communities and public understandings of race, poverty and class.

Sam Durant's Iconoclasm: The Construction and Destruction of Art as a Social Practice

Credit: Eoin Carey

Jimmy Roberts’ multimedia work is similarly local, Tobacco flower, examines the traces that Glasgow’s role in colonialism and the cultural framing of identities and desires has left behind. These are just a few examples of works of art that reflect socio-political stories and ideologies. Sam Durant’s drawing series, iconoclasm, also looks at the relationship between art and social action, but from a different perspective.

iconoclasm consists of large-format graphite renderings depicting the destruction of monumental public sculptures. The events depicted occurred primarily in the 20th and 21st centuries, with some outliers going back to the defacement of the altarpiece in 1572 in St. Martin’s Cathedral in Utrecht, Netherlands, during the Great Iconoclasm. The timeline of events in Durant’s series shows that the destruction of works of art is nothing new as a social act, and his choice of the ephemeral medium of graphite on paper draws attention to the transience of art, ideals, and social mores – even those that are literally set in stone. This message of impermanence is reinforced when these paper works are displayed outdoors, posted on walls and fences across the city, where they become vulnerable to acts of nature and human interference.

Durant is not just an observer of the removal of controversial works of art. His monumental public sculpture, framework, originally commissioned for documenta (13) in Kassel, Germany, was subjected to intense scrutiny and protest in the Walker Art Center’s Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. The design of frameworkDesigned to be a literal platform for discussion of the death penalty, slavery and racism, referred to several historical gallows, including one where 38 Dakota tribesmen were hanged in 1862 in Mankato, Minnesota. This hanging was the largest mass execution ever to take place in the United States. The structure was built before the garden was open to the public, but due to its size, it was visible from public spaces. Without the availability of contextual information and no contact with the local Dakota community, framework was seen more as a memorial to the genocide than as a work of art intended to provoke dialogue.

In response, Durant and the Walker Art Center allowed the sculpture to be dismantled by an indigenous construction company after cleaning in a Dakota ceremony. The disassembled materials along with Durant’s intellectual property rights to the work were given to the tribe. Create the drawings in iconoclasm was part of Durant’s reflection process on these events. He says the drawings “raise the question of whether iconoclasm could be almost universal in response to disturbing or offensive symbols and imagery” by showing “iconoclasms throughout history, around the world, and from a variety of impulses: political “religious” show “culturally”.

Sam Durant's Iconoclasm: The Construction and Destruction of Art as a Social Practice

Credit: Eoin Carey

The debate about the destruction / removal of works of art as a social action has flared up in recent years. Inspired by the tragic death of George Floyd and an international appeal by the Black Lives Matter movement to recognize and abolish racist and colonial legacies, sculptures commemorating violent criminals against oppressed communities were overthrown. While some argue that erasing such works of art wipes out history, monuments of historical figures tell us very little about our past. They are almost always inherently biased as they are erected to further a political agenda, like the statues of Confederate generals commissioned and erected in public places throughout the American South during the Jim Crow era, or the notorious slave trader Edward Colston’s Bristol bronze, erected 174 years after his death.

Keeping these symbols of oppression in public maintains an atmosphere of hostility. As society changes and technology gives us a more cosmopolitan perspective of the world and its people, our values ​​and our surroundings evolve too.

When asked what role he thinks art has in relation to social action, Durant replied: “I believe that certain works of art that we could describe as’ great ‘(i.e. powerful, meaningful, particularly moving, beautiful with a large’ B ‘or however you want to define “great”) can affect individual people, help you see the world anew, or show what we call the status quo, everyday reality for what it is – a construction that could be turned into some other, possibly better construction.

“Art could change us as individuals and give us the opportunity to do the political, social and material work together with others to create a society that is better for human life or even for all life. I don’t think art does this material work directly; it affects individual people who can then consciously or unconsciously become actors who change the reality of social relationships ”.

Sam Durant: Iconoclasm will be showing in several public locations across Glasgow through June 27th.



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