Fred Wilson's monumental chandelier installed at the Redwood Library & Athenaeum

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Fred Wilson's monumental chandelier installed at the Redwood Library & Athenaeum
Fred Wilson, facade of American pavilion with Frari figures, (2003). Peter Harrison, Redwood Library (1747), Newport, Rhode Island.

NEWPORT, RI.- The Redwood Library & Athenaeum, the nation’s first purpose-built library, interdisciplinary think space, and public Palladian building has acquired Fred Wilson’s black Murano glass chandelier No Way But This (2013). Wilson’s sculpture forms part of the Redwood Contemporary Art Initiative’s (RCAI) program of exhibiting and acquiring contemporary artworks that excavate how the contradictory histories of the Enlightenment underpin the economic and juridical inequities of our time. The monumental sculpture, installed in the oculus of the Redwood’s historic Reading Room, opens up a dialogue with the institution’s—and the state’s—long repressed histories of enslavement. In a recent public discussion held in Newport to inaugurate the chandelier’s installation, Wilson commented that No Way But This “stands like an alien in this space,” referring to his work’s placement in the neoclassical interior adorned with numerous paintings of white men.

Redwood curator Leora Maltz-Leca noted that: “By bringing a work of black light into this Enlightenment institution, our hope is that Wilson’s iconic work invites critical reflection on the metaphorics of light, whiteness and virtue. The chandelier, which absorbs light rather than reflecting it, casts shadows on the toxic heliophilia of Western culture: the obsession with light and with spreading it that lies at the heart of colonial modernity.” Wilson uses glass, a fragile yet durable material long associated in the Western tradition with reflection and transparency, as the means to interrogate the metaphor of light as truth, alongside the harmful obverse it depends on: darkness as duplicity and death. No Way But This challenges these enduring Judeo-Christian symbolisms by creating a gorgeously ornate celebration of opacity and tenebrosity.

Like all examples of Wilson’s baroque Ca’Rezzonico chandeliers, the title No Way But This is drawn from Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello, one of the few major works of European literature to depict a Black man with nuance and ambiguity. Wilson turned to Shakespeare’s Venetian drama as part of his larger project on Venice and the central, but largely erased, role of Africans in that city’s famously cosmopolitan early modern society. The resulting chandelier, his first, was the centerpiece of Wilson’s exhibition in the US pavilion of the 2003 Venice Biennale, and was titled Chandelier Mori: Speak of Me as I Am, a phrase drawn from Othello’s final speech, where the dying man appeals for truth and fair representation.

Similarly, the Redwood’s No Way But This is titled after Othello’s very last line in the play when, having stabbed himself, he declares: “No way but this/ Killing myself, To die upon a kiss.” The quote Wilson selected encapsulates Othello’s desperate sense of entrapment, both by the events which provoked his murder of Desdemona and by a world circumscribed by rigid hierarchies in which being Black was as precarious as it is today. Moreover, in the carceral state of the present, Othello’s words, and the condition of being ensnared or confined, resonate beyond Shakespeare’s text, portending histories of Black people in the centuries that followed.

Wilson’s chandeliers are not only grounded in the erasure of Africans from Venetian history. They point to a larger phenomenon of wholescale obliteration: an entire Eurocentric history of deleting the contributions of African history, mathematics, astronomy, science, art and culture to European, and ultimately, global culture. One defining instance of such erasure took form in eighteenth-century Germany, when Johann Joachim Winkelmann and other founders of modern art history and archaeology denied the profound influence of Egypt and North Africa on Greek language, science and culture, instead projecting a narcissistic image of Aryan blondness onto the ancient Greeks.

This campaign of erasure extended to Newport, RI, with the simultaneous construction of the Redwood as a Neoclassical temple to Athenian values (in a building indebted to Egyptian geometry), alongside the denial of the very humanity of Black persons through the institution of slavery. It was this denial that allowed Mr. Redwood to make the fortune that funded his eponymous library through the profits of his Antigua sugar plantation. The erasure of Black history and Black subjectivity that No Way But This illuminates thus forms part of a targeted Enlightenment-era effort of dehumanizing: the rhetorical process bound up with the invention of racial categories of difference, which was used justify the colonial project, acts of mass enslavement, and indigenous genocide. Caribbean theorist Sylvia Wynter has stressed the importance of rethinking the structuring metaphors of the Human, and for an institution of the public humanities such as the Redwood such work is exigent. Wilson’s work illuminates the Redwood as a material manifestation of the Enlightenment’s contradictory histories, revealing how art and architecture abetted narratives foundational to the Enlightenment’s dehumanizing rhetoric and ultimately, its violent history. At the same time, it offers a brilliant instance of contemporary art’s power to reveal and revise such period tropes.

Wilson’s storied practice has long been defined by the exploration of institutional collecting rationales and display strategies to examine embedded ideologies and power structures, often by juxtaposing objects out of their original contexts in ways that yield oppositional meanings and counternarratives. Installed at the Redwood, a Palladian structure akin to the US pavilion in Venice’s Giardini, Wilson’s chandelier conjoins the Library’s historic Reading Room with Shakespeare, while it is positioned where a chandelier once hung beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. It is, however, the constellation of the work’s meanings around race, representation, and repressed histories—in contrast to the room’s current secondary function as a portrait gallery of white historical figures—that brings about the fullness of its impact.

Benedict Leca, Redwood Executive Director, commented: “Public libraries in the eighteenth century were new, politically-charged communal spaces, meaning that then as now the Redwood was always designed to engage with contemporary culture. I want to thank all of the donors who enabled us to acquire this incredible work, which so exemplifies the interrelation between past and present.”

No Way But This was acquired with support from: The Ford Foundation, Neil Bond and Ann Blackwell, Belinda Kielland, Mr. and Mrs. Stephen A. Schwarzman, Mr. and Mrs. Frederick J. Warren, and The Hartfield Foundation.

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