lauren woods, American MONUMENT
University Art Museum,
California State University Long Beach
Through December 9, 2018
By Amy Kaeser
The Dallas, Texas-based conceptual artist lauren woods (lowercase per the artist) and recently ousted University Art Museum (UAM) Director, Kimberli Meyer, have transformed the UAM into a site for remembering, reflecting, and seeing. At the time of this review, because and in protest to the termination of Meyer from her position as director, woods iteration of American MONUMENT is in a state of “PAUSE.”
Even in this paused state, which was implemented by woods, American MONUMENT’s presence in this space on the campus of California State University Long Beach stands as a memorial to violence and death. The curators intention is to address police brutality towards black bodies in the United States, as well as institutionalized violence, how we process death in this age of instant information (in the form of bystanders filming acts of violence), mass media’s filtering of information and clear biases (showing mug shots of victims or stereotypical images of black men but not graduation photographs or family album pictures), and how access to information is suppressed. The context of this exhibition was a bold idea even before the opening reception, which took place on September 16th, 2018; a direct comment on police brutality and white supremacy in our country, and how historically African-American men and women have been and still are systematically erased.
American MONUMENT’s “sound sculpture” is silent. The 25-plinth centerpiece, located in the central gallery of the UAM, stands on an elevated wooden platform in a grid formation of 5 x 5 individual, free-standing pillars about 4 ½ ft. tall. Viewers were invited to play the record’s through the action of picking up the needle and placing it upon the record. The space between the pillars is deliberate as to allow bodies to move through and reach each individual record. The audio recordings of people woods hired reading from testimonials, interviews, witness statements, and audio from altercations between police officers and victims are pressed into 25 vinyl records. The records are no longer present as a part of this sculpture as they were taken by the artist the day after the opening reception. What at one point was the central “action” of the exhibition now stands tomb-like; a still and quiet place with benches positioned on the north and south walls for the viewer to sit and imagine the sounds of the records playing as a cacophony of pain and brutality. Gallery staff and visitors are noted to deliberately avoid walking through the sculpture as if it had transformed into a thing deserved of veneration, something to be looked upon but not interacted with.
The UAM’s “Project Space” to the right of the main entrance is where viewers are ideally to start their contemplation of the exhibition’s thesis. Autopsía, “a seeing with one’s own eyes,” consists of three images: the first is a coroner’s report from the “Office of the Medical Examiner: County of Cook.” The plaque, which is slightly smaller than the standard legal-size paper, details the entry and exit wounds on the body of Laquan McDonald, a 17-year old who was killed by police officer Jason Van Dyke in Chicago on October 20th, 2016. Laquan McDonald was walking away from the officer when he was gunned down. The official record states the 17-year old was experiencing a mental breakdown at the time of his murder. In the accompanying brochure it is noted that McDonald was holding a small 3-inch knife that was in a folded position at the time. The visual evidence provided by woods and the records she was able to obtain show the stark outline of a figure on the medical report. The amount of violence done to McDonald’s body is extensive. The x’s and o’s of the entry and exit wounds cover the entire illustrated form, with a few small triangles to note “recovered” bullets that never found a direct exit route. On the opposite wall are two enlarged images of the front and back of the illustrated body representing McDonald. The image is familiar to any who watch crime shows, the ubiquitous outline indicating a deceased body. At once clinical and heart-wrenching, the images symbolize a life lost to violence. The room itself is cold and unfamiliar; an examination room in a morgue comes to mind. Even the smallest detail is highlighted here by the enlargement of the images and the dim lighting of the space; as a part of the formal information, name, age, sex, there is a single “B” written indicating “race.” As official reports are on white paper, the B for “black” is as loaded as the gun with which McDonald was shot.
Three tables at varying lengths (21-ft., 15-ft., 5-ft.) occupy the mid-point of the long gallery located to the left of the UAM’s main entrance. Atop the tables sit several empty archive boxes. The absent documentation which was to go within the boxes were copies of requested information obtained by woods through the “Freedom of Information Act” (1967). The purpose of the documentation’s presence was to create a discussion about access to information with the documents specifically detailing the collected evidence in several high-profile police shootings. The longest table (21 ft.) represents the distance within which a police officer has the justification of use-of-force. The “21-Foot Rule” is considered a “guideline” by law enforcement. The 15 ft. table is the distance Laquan McDonald was at the time for his shooting. The last table is 5 ft., the distance Margaret Mitchell, a 70-year-old, mentally-ill homeless woman, was standing when a Los Angeles police officer shot and killed her, she reported to be experiencing a mental breakdown at the time.
Mirroring each other at opposite ends of the long gallery, six enlarged texts, three on the north wall and three on the south wall are spotlighted. The texts are the official statements describing the events that led to the deaths of Michael Brown and Travon Martin respectively. The north wall texts are the Grand Jury testimony of Ferguson, MO police officer Darren Wilson. The three sheets of enlarged transcripts are presented without pomp, at the top of the page is the header: “The State of Missouri v. Darren Wilson, Grand Jury Volume V, September 16, 2014.” The bottom of the transcript lists the reporting service used that day, “Gore Perry Reporting and Video,” website, telephone, and fax numbers are listed as well. Wilson’s testimony records the officer’s recollection of what Brown said in his final moments; a collection of angry and disrespectful language, according to Wilson, before the officer made the final decision to unholster his gun and fatally shoot Brown. This testimony occurred around a month after the death of Brown on August 9, 2014. A highlighted sentence towards the end of the third page reads, “you are too much of a pussy to shoot me.”
The south wall details the police suspect interview with George Zimmerman the night he murdered Trayvon Martin. Small wooden stools are stacked in one corner as the space is intended “for thinking about historical precedence and case law.” The hand-written scrawl of the wall texts describes the events of Martin’s death as Zimmerman remembers them. The script is hard to read, not only in terms of the cursive writing, but also because of the details Zimmerman is recalling from earlier that evening. The date of the “Suspect Report,” is February 26, 2012, the same date Trayvon Martin died. As with the opposite walls text, a single sentence is highlighted in Zimmerman’s statement, “your gonna die tonight motherfucker.”
The UAM’s Permanent Collection space or as woods entitled it for the show, “The Waterfall,” is “a place to reflect upon the human toll.” A large, blood-red carpet flows river-like down the central line of the space. Display cases stand empty waiting for the public engagement programming to happen, which is still scheduled. At this point the conversation has shifted as the “pause” of the show continues until a mediation occurs or the reinstatement of Kimberli Meyer as director. American MONUMENT represents at its present state is a lost opportunity for meaningful discussions surrounding the current state of our country, the students of CSULB, the visitors to the UAM, and Long Beach as a community have lost the most in the tug-of-ideological-war happening behind the scenes and until the show resumes (assuming it ever will before its December 9th end date) here is the list of victim names from the sound-sculpture records removed: Jamar Clark, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Anthony Hayes, Eric Garner, Danny Ray Thomas, Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald, Mike Brown, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Kimani Gray, Philando Castille, Jordan Harrison, Jason Harrison, Trayvon Martin, Margaret Mitchell, Ezell Ford, Oscar Grant, Patrick Harmon, Terence Crutcher, Samuel Dubose, Darrius Stewart, and Gregory Gunn.
lauren woods: American MONUMENTS is now open, although “paused”, at the University Art Museum located on the campus of California State University Long Beach.
Links to more information by lauren woods regarding the “pause”:
The statement put forth from Dean of COTA, Cyrus Parker-Jeannette:
The statement by the UAM:
At the time of this review, no official statement has been made by Kimberli Meyer.
Amy Kaeser holds an MA in Art from California State University Long Beach and is currently teaching Art History at Fullerton College in Fullerton, CA.