‘I Try to Create a Traumatic Experience’: Watch Artist Doreen Garner Take Apart a Monument to a Racist Medical Doctor

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the Art21 "New York Close Up" film, "Doreen Garner Sculpts Our Trauma." © Art21, Inc. 2018.

In the past two weeks, statues of Christopher Columbus, Robert E. Lee, slave traders, and leaders of the Confederacy have been toppled and covered in protest signs as part of the widespread demonstrations following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Back in 2017, artist Doreen Garner turned her attention to another figure commemorated by a problematic statue: J. Marion Sims, a pioneer of gynecology who conducted experiments on enslaved black women. Sims, who believed that black women did not feel as much pain as white women, used no anesthesia during his invasive procedures.

For her exhibition at Pioneer Works in New York in 2017, aptly titled “White Man on a Pedestal,” Garner worked with artist Kenya Robinson to create a silicon cast of Sims’s monument, which was then still on view in Manhattan’s Central Park. (It was later removed and placed in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where he is buried.)

Production still from the Art21 "New York Close Up" film, "Doreen Garner Sculpts Our Trauma." © Art21, Inc. 2018.

Production still from the Art21 “New York Close Up” film, “Doreen Garner Sculpts Our Trauma.” © Art21, Inc. 2018.

In the performance that accompanied the sculpture, black women dissected the cast of Sims’s body, performing the same operations on him that he performed on enslaved women.

Speaking to Art21 in an exclusive interview as part of the New York Close Up series, Garner explained the symbolism of her work: “I’m a Black woman horrified by these actions, and yet I have to show all these actions so that it’s not a situation where people are able to overlook this information anymore.”

“I try to create a traumatic experience,” Garner told Art21, adding: “It’s not a desire that I naturally have, it’s just what I have to do.”

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s series New York Close Up, below. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch episodes of other series like “New York Close Up” and “Extended Play” and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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