Material Politics: Q&A with Wilmer Wilson IV

Wilmer Wilson IV. Domestic Exchange (installation view). 2012, Conner Contemporary Art

Wilmer Wilson’s a busy man. On Thursday he’ll be channeling Henry Box Brown in a performance that’s part of the city-wide public art extravaganza called the Five by Five Project. This is on the heels of Wilson’s breakthrough at the (e)merge art fair last summer, which earned him a spot on the roster of the city’s most commercially successful gallery, and a subsequent presentation at the prestigious New York City art fair Volta (with Conner Contemporary), which got him on just about everyone’s short list of standout work at the event. As if that wasn’t enough, Wilson opened his first solo show at Conner two weeks ago, Domestic Exchange, on view through May 5th, before turning his attention to the city’s Five by Five Project with a series of performances that begin this Thursday. No doubt it’s been a whirlwind couple of months for the 22 year old Howard University undergrad, and truth be told, he’s just getting started.
Wilmer’s performances develop over several hours, unfolding via repetitive actions that implicate the artist with the everyday materials he uses. At (e)merge it was I Voted stickers, which he used to methodically cover his whole body over the course of an entire day. And for his performance during the opening of Domestic Exchange it was brown paper bags, which he used to reference the skin-tone politics of the paper bag test. The results are gracefully engaged with abstraction. And they’re practically redemptive, as the artist ascribes a kind of emotional significance to throwaway minutiae. Indeed, for the objects he uses in his work, Wilmer’s performances are transformative.

I recently caught up with Wilmer to ask him a few questions about his work at Conner, and about his upcoming performances for the 5×5 Project.

Can you tell me about the relationship you have with the objects you use in your performances? Within that relationship, is there a redemptive quality to your actions?

I do consider it redemptive, though not in an explicitly religious sense. Interestingly enough, the most beautiful art work I have ever seen is the Throne by James Hampton — it’s a set of palatial furnishings for the second coming of Jesus, made out of discarded tin foil and found objects. It is literally made of garbage and fit for a king. My work does not intend to deal with religious doctrine or symbolism, but I am deeply moved by the ceremonial aspects of Throne that transform non-ceremonial materials loaded with previous meaning.

I am interested in altering and layering the meanings of common symbols in my everyday experience. The most potent results for me often come from rediscovering value in things deemed worthless. When I combine them with my action, my body, and my self, these objects take on ritualized meaning that augments their common ones. And when I step outside of my art practice I am able to view similar objects with a fresh framework. The symbols of everyday life contain more depth.

Wilmer Wilson IV. From My Paper Bag Colored Heart (performance). 2012, Conner Contemporary Art

Your last performance at Conner was three hours long, and your performances at (e)merge and Volta were of a similar duration. Presumably, most people who caught the beginning of it didn’t catch the end, and vice versa. So for most viewers, there really isn’t a beginning or an end to your performances. Can you tell me about the concept of time in Domestic Exchange and how it may be related to the viewers’ experience?

The performance part of Domestic Exchange, titled From My Paper Bag Colored Heart, was actually several hours shorter than the sticker performances I have also been involved with recently [at Volta and (e)merge]. For the long ones, I was interested in viewers feeling comfortable leaving and returning. The methodical, incremental speed of my action builds up investment in my progress, so when I am almost covered there is a visceral understanding of how much energy I invested to get to that point, even if one has not been present for every moment.

From My Paper Bag Colored Heart was definitively shorter, but it was still long enough to have expected a similar response. For this performance I had more distinct of a progression I wanted to happen at the end, but I still expected the general sense of time to be similar to the sticker ones. But it managed to subvert a lot of my expectations. As a performer, a shorter performance does not equate to an easier one. And viewers observed for much longer periods at a time than they did the sticker ones. That created a hushed atmosphere amongst the audience that lent a palpable sense of ritual to my actions, the gravity of which likely pressed upon newcomers more quickly.

Would you say that abstraction is an important component in your work? With the repetition and the absence of a narrative, it seems like visual abstraction and conceptual abstraction go hand in hand.

Absolutely — on my construction site of culture abstraction is the sledgehammer. Open a space by smashing out a wall, or (with precision) deconstruct a building into fragments and make something new. When a symbol aggregates and repeats, it departs from its original meaning and enters a transitional space between the domestic and the foreign. It is in that space when one can re-imagine what something familiar might mean. It is also the space where harmful appropriation can occur. I have had increasing discussions about this: visual abstraction can be compelling, but it is most powerful and relevant to me when employed to abstract meaning.

I would also like to add that I think there is a sense of narrative in my work, albeit a non-traditional one. It lies in the relationship of the chosen material, my body and my action to one another. A surprising number of performance artists have theatrical backgrounds it seems; I do not.

Wilmer Wilson IV. From My Paper Bag Colored Heart (performance). 2012, Conner Contemporary Art

Every time I’ve seen you perform, I’ve also been taken by the documentation that you produce, from photographs to the discarded stickers you used. Obviously, you give a lot of consideration to documenting your work. Can you tell me about the role that documentation plays in your creative process? Do considerations about documentation affect the direction that you take with a particular project?

I realized recently that I am an autodidact of sorts with regards to performance; I developed my sensibility largely from synthesizing discussions, process-oriented sculpture, photography, and texts, without having experienced many performance works in person. So my path into performances often originates from these other disciplines. Photography plays a crucial role in my practice. For the recent works I imagined how the photograph would look first, and the performance became my attempt to attain that photograph. But I am starting to respond to my own experience of performing, and I am excited to see where that takes me.

In Domestic Exchange the object you’re using is the brown paper bag. What is the significance of the brown paper bag?
The paper bag has a range of definitions in common discourse, connoting uses from the seemingly frivolous (garbage, lunch) to the more  solemn (brown-bagged alcohol). For the installation component of the show I wanted to walk that line between whimsical and dark. The piece becomes like a grotto — a space which a viewer can enter and have a heightened experience of the object’s connotations.

The performance engages a specific history of the paper bag, distinct among black people and people of color: colorism, or discrimination based on skin tone. The paper bag has been a marker between light and dark skin. Lighter skinned people experienced preferable treatment over darker skinned people, and this still has implications today. After using the paper bag in my practice for so many months, I realized (remembered) through numerous dialogues that it had this function, and still held this connotation. So even if I had never experienced the “paper bag test” explicitly, it still affected both my life experience and my artistic practice. The performance is an absurd grapple with these realities.

Tell me about what you have planned for your 5×5 project? / Tell me about your performance for the 5×5 Project?

My 5×5 project is based on an evolution of my sticker performances. Since I was little I was fascinated with the story of Henry “Box” Brown, a slave from my hometown, Richmond, VA. Through his intense desire to achieve basic human rights, he sent himself through the mail — in a box — to the free north. The notion that his quixotic, almost grotesque scheme was necessary to achieve a basic, desirable life condition is still relevant today. So in a reexamination of that story, I am going to create skins out of thousands of US postage stamps during each of my 3 performances. I will walk through the streets of DC and ultimately try to mail myself to freedom at local post offices. I hope to spark renewed dialogue around conditions, such as freedom, we may take for granted. The dates & locations are April 5 at UDC, April 9 at Lincoln Theatre, and April 13 at Old Post Office.

Study, From My Paper Bag Colored Heart
2012, archival pigment print, 45 x 30 inches, ed. 5 + 2 A

Domestic Exchange will be on view at Conner Contemporary, 1358 Florida Avenue, NE, through May 5. Wilmer Wilson IV will be performing as part of the citywide 5×5 Project on April 5 at UDC, April 9 at Lincoln Theatre, and April 13 at Old Post Office.


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