‘There Is Meaning in Ugliness’: Watch Artist Fred Wilson Explain Why We Can’t Look Away From the Hideous Parts of History

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

Production still from the Art21
Production still from the Art21 "Extended Play" film, "Fred Wilson: Beauty & Ugliness." © Art21, Inc. 2014.

What is more powerful: beauty, or ugliness?

Artist Fred Wilson, who is known for his interventionist artworks, in which he takes objects from museum collections and rearranges them, decoding and recontextualizing their meaning, was focused on just that question in an exclusive interview with Art21 filmed in 2014.

In the interview, Wilson discusses beauty, ugliness, and meaning in relation to his installations at the 2003 Venice Biennale and at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2004.

In Venice, Wilson collected examples of decorative sculptures known as “blackamoors”—highly stylized Black figures depicted in subservient roles—and arranged them throughout the American pavilion.

Venice is still the largest exporter of blackamoor objects, and the United States is its biggest market; despite the obvious racism of the objects, they are crafted decorative works in which some see beauty—and that, according to Wilson, is the key.

Speaking with Art21 Wilson said: “People have to deal with the fact that there is meaning in beauty… there is meaning in ugliness. In a lot of my work, if I can, I try to bring out that tension.”

Production still from the Art21 "Extended Play" film, "Fred Wilson: Beauty & Ugliness." © Art21, Inc. 2014.

Blackamoor objects on display in “Fred Wilson: Beauty & Ugliness.” © Art21, Inc. 2014.

In another example, Wilson explains “Mining the Museum,” a project he began in 1992, when he first started working with museum collections. For part of the work staged at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Wilson was drawn to an arrangement of chairs and a whipping post. “The chairs are really beautiful” he told Art21. “That whipping post is certainly not.”

By simply placing the 19th-century chairs next to a tool of such brutality, Wilson hopes to elicit a response from viewers. Who might have sat in the beautifully crafted furniture, and how may they have related to those people being whipped?

“There’s no manipulation of the objects other than the positioning,” Wilson explains—but that makes all the difference.

“Not acknowledging that things are complex,” the artist says, “that’s the problem… So, I enjoy making it complex for people, because that’s my world.”

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s series Extended Play, below. 

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