Sam Durant’s 2005 work, Proposal for White and Indian Dead Monument Transpositions, Washington D.C. is finally on view in its new home, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (August 3rd- November 30th). The piece consists of both text and sculpture, existing simultaneously in intellectual and physical space. Durant proposes that thirty monuments erected to the white and “friendly” Indian dead from the Indian Wars of the late 17th century to the 1890s be relocated from their scattered locations across the United States to Washington D.C., where twenty-five monuments to the white dead will line the reflecting pool in between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, and five monuments to the Indian dead will be placed on the lawn directly in front of the Washington Monument. His actual art piece consists of these thirty monuments, scaled down and cast in a matte slate gray, as well as a tabletop model of how the real monuments would be placed according to his vision.
The piece is housed in a large white room with lofty ceilings, and the effect of the two long rows of tall monuments to the white dead and the cluster of five monuments to the Indian dead renders the room sepulchral, sacred. In his statement for the piece Durant explained that he chose monuments dedicated to anonymous men and women, and avoided those that were figurative. His choice to do so calls attention to the scores dead in these massacres, which plagued the new country as it expanded economically and territorially.
The story is not, of course, that simple. Monuments are authoritative indicators of an agreed-upon narrative; thus, their erection gives credence to a particular viewpoint with the implicit understanding that it is legitimate, supported by the gravitas and imposing presence of the monument itself. The United States erected these monuments to the Indian wars well after the actual battles took place, revealing how the country was dedicated to preserving a national narrative of heroic expansion and manifest destiny, rather than one of violence, aggression, and systematic extermination.
The monuments for the white dead obviously outnumber those for the Indian dead, and Durant takes care to mimic that lopsided ratio in his piece. The fact that there are monuments at all to the Indian dead may prompt some viewers to initially think that the United States did indeed try to acknowledge its past behavior, but the Indians honored are in fact “friendly” Indians –those who were trying to assimilate, who were Christian, or who were the unwitting victims of revenge against other, more bellicose Indians. Durant’s work asks viewers to think deeply about what monuments signify, why it matters who erects them, and why his proposal to move these thirty to the nation’s capital would alter the way we think about our history.
Finally, Proposal benefits from its placement in the museum, as it is currently neighbors with LACMA’s Marsden Hartley exhibition. Hartley composed a series of “Amerika” paintings that reflected his interest in Native American history, culture, and iconography. His geometric, abstract works incorporate symbols such as eagles, teepees, jars and baskets, and seated Native American figures. And in turn, one of Hartley’s own influences is included in that exhibition –Edward Curtis’s photographs from the early 1900s of Cheyenne men and women –silent, dignified, weary –hang on a nearby wall. Visitors are thus encouraged to consider the ways in which art from different artists, mediums, eras, and aesthetic and political impulses can engage in a dialogue about our shared past. Durant’s piece ends up being all the more impactful in this context once it becomes clear how his efforts are to illuminate the relationship with Native Americans, rather than simply gawk at or appropriate from them.
Sam Durant, Proposal for White and Indian Dead Monument Transpositions, Washington D.C.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art 8/3/14-11/30/14
5905 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles CA 90036
tel 323 857-6000
Writing by Kristen Osborne-Bartucca
Photography courtesy of the Artist