Martin Puryear’s Column for Sally Hemmings and Swallowed Sun (Monstrance and Volute) are two site-specific works at the Venice Biennale. Their relationship to the site dredges up the history of the building and of the United States to make meaning. Working with an assortment of woods and metals, fabric and rope, Puryear investigates the concept of liberty for an international audience.
The show, titled Martin Puryear: Liberty/Libertá, begins from afar with the monumental Swallowed Sun, which looms in front of the building, hiding the pediment from visitors, where “STATI VNITI D’AMERICA” is proudly chiseled. Stiff rays reach out from a dense oval to create a distorted grid when viewed from the front. This part is the “Monstrance” in Monstrance and Volute, a reference to the tool in the Catholic Church used to display the host during Adoration. Many visitors note that the screen appears to bow in, like a dome, before they come nearer and shatter the illusion. The screen is as tall as the building behind it and forces the viewer to walk around either side of it to enter the forecourt. In the forecourt, the viewer discovers the “Volute” part of Monstrance and Volute—a curling black tendril, dressed in rope-bound fabric that sprouts from the back of the screen.
Inside the building, in the domed chamber, at the center of the starburst floor mosaic is Column for Sally Hemings; a wooden column slathered in an uneven coat of white paint, which buckles under the weight of an iron shackle that plunges itself into the top. The title of the piece invokes the name of Sally Hemings, a black slave owned by President Thomas Jefferson, and the mother of six of his children. The column itself refers to the stately stone columns visible through the transom above the center doors, but instead of being executed in stone, Puryear’s column is made of wood. It looks like marble, but in actuality the column lacks the lavishness and imperviousness of marble, substituting instead wood’s propensity to rot and relative cheapness.
In these two objects, Puryear employs a diversity of scale as a testament to his ability to communicate through objects. The enormous Swallowed Sun imposes itself on the Giardini, like a warden. The black oval on the screen is like an eye, perhaps keeping track of which visitors come in and which pass by. Conversely, Sally Hemings is like a bust on a pedestal. Monumental in everything but scale, the stoic Column for Sally Hemings heralds its message in a whisper, rather than a shout.
With these site-specific sculptures, Puryear demands that the audience reconsider an essential characteristic of the American identity: freedom. Normally associated with quilted landscapes and nuclear families, Puryear reminds us that the idyllic, American freedom cannot exist without its grotesque counterpart: restriction. Swallowed Sun addresses this dichotomy at the outset. The sculpture has two sides that cannot be viewed simultaneously. The viewer is either enclosed within the forecourt, or outside the pavilion in the stateless nether between the national pavilions. On the inside, the viewer is faced with the diabolical volute, which is itself a reference to the tail of the dragon in Carpaccio’s St. George and the Dragon. The rope bindings suggest that something sinister has been smuggled into the forecourt and could burst out of the fabric at any minute. Yet, the people on the exterior remain unaware of the ugly truth of the volute. By framing the show with a passage between exterior and interior, Puryear fastens to the viewer an awareness of interiority and exteriority that he plays on throughout the show, in pieces like New Voortrekker and Aso Oke. In this way, he communicates the limits of “guaranteed” freedoms in modern society. In Column for Sally Hemings, Puryear disinters the intentionally buried history of one of Jefferson’s slaves. Any reference to slavery is bound to ignite conversations about “liberty in America,” especially one that is so tightly tethered to an American president. But Puryear does more than monumentalize an oft-forgotten figure—he mirrors the history of the building itself.
To fully understand the context of both of the site-specific works discussed here, we need to understand the site and the historical contexts of its construction. At the end of World War I, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was a driving force behind the formation of the League of Nations, a peaceable assembly of nations devoted to maintaining good international relations throughout the world. Despite President Wilson playing such a pivotal role in forming the shape of the League of Nations, the U.S. did not join the League of Nations at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. One of the reasons that the U.S. declined to join the League can be distilled to one catchy word: “isolationism.” The United States did not want to involve themselves in European affairs after suffering so many casualties in the First World War, primarily on European soil. Instead, the U.S. chose to fend for itself in the recovering, post-war world, for better or for worse.
Eleven years later, in 1930, when the U.S. built its national pavilion in the Giardini in Venice, the U.S. had the wealth and power to rival the greatest empires of the time. The U.S. pavilion was (and remains) the only privately-owned, privately-funded pavilion in the world, which was a testament to the private wealth in the U.S. that persisted even during these fledgling years of what would come to be known as the Great Depression. The American pavilion was the tenth in the Giardini, preceded only by Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, Great Britain, Hungary, France, Russia, Spain, and Czechoslovakia. The glistening group of cohorts in the Giardini separated themselves from the U.S. in one major way: history. The other countries had what were considered rich histories of global dominion, and each was a major player in Western history. The US did not possess a history that anyone from the period cared about, so they had to assert their legitimacy somehow. The architecture thusly hails Monticello: Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia, whose style stands as an example of Americanized Palladian architecture. The U.S. pavilion usurps the artistic history of Venice to assert the veracity of the American identity.
This is one of the histories that Martin Puryear is referring to in making these works site specific. He kidnaps the language of a building set on legitimizing a nation’s history and does exactly that—legitimizes the nation’s history. But not the history that Americans are taught at large. Rather, Puryear displays the ugly history of how America really amassed its wealth: slavery and nationalism. Martin Puryear: Liberty/Libertá is as much about captivity as it is about freedom. The two always exist together, the people held captive by the Constitution are just stashed away in archives and unsupported neighborhoods. By presenting works that communicate with the site, Puryear includes the site in the presentation, erasing any morsel of neutrality from the space. He strips away the seamless coat of white paint inside the white cube to reveal the inherently nationalistic undertones of the pavilion and the racist path that has lead us to where we are today.