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He reconstructs dioramas to deconstruct historical myths

Growing up in Cohasset in the 1960s, Sam Durant learned about our nation's first Thanksgiving at the nearby Plymouth National Wax Museum . The lifelike dioramas of Pilgrims suffering in English jails, crossing the Atlantic in their tiny wooden ship, and -- with the help of friendly Indians -- surviving and thriving in the New World left a lasting impression on his young mind.

Now an internationally recognized conceptual artist, Durant was recently invited to create an exhibition at Massachusetts College of Art, where he earned his undergraduate degree in 1986. He wanted to do something about Plymouth and the founding of our country, so he went back to the wax museum with Jeffrey Keough , MassArt's director of exhibitions and curator of Durant's show. When he learned the museum was closing for good, Durant purchased some of the wax figures and other materials that would eventually go into his politically provocative, seasonally appropriate exhibition "Scenes From the Pilgrim Story: Myths, Massacres, and Monuments."

The centerpiece of the show is a startling and bizarre spectacle: a pair of carefully reconstructed wax-museum dioramas mounted back to back on a 16-foot circular platform that slowly and silently revolves in the middle of the spacious and otherwise mostly empty Stephen D. Paine Gallery. The frozen, zombielike figures in historical costumes and the detailed stage sets they occupy create a surrealistic vividness; they seem both intensely real and ludicrously artificial.

In one scene, the famously helpful Indian Squanto shows some Pilgrims how to plant corn using fish fertilizer. In the second, a Pilgrim with a big stick stands before an Indian on all fours whom he evidently has just clubbed to the ground. This tableau, we learn from a wall label, represents Captain Miles Standish killing a troublesome Wessagusset brave named Pecksuot. The scene was removed from public view by the wax museum in the 1970s because it was deemed too violent. Durant was able to refabricate it using an old postcard.

So Durant's project is about the sanitizing of history and the casting of the Pilgrim story in a benign mythic light. You don't have to read labels to get the point. Using the waxwork tableaux serves his purpose with brilliant economy: The gallery context highlights how grotesque they are, and their grotesqueness becomes a metaphor for the grotesquely distorted history they represent. The ponderously rotating carousel is like an endlessly recurring national nightmare.

Elsewhere in the gallery, Durant has created a reading area where didactic panels detail some of the more horrendous things the Pilgrims did to Native Americans. There is also a small collection of history books for the curious to read further. This adjunct part of the show is informative, but I think it's a mistake because it turns Durant's project into an educational enterprise, lessening the poetic force his artworks have by themselves.

Another powerful piece is a color video projection based on photographs Durant made before the museum closed. As the camera scans dioramas representing episodes of the Pilgrims' saga, original museum voice recordings tell the story. It's like very bad television puppet theater -- bizarrely comical and a little scary. As with the wax reconstructions, its historical cluelessness is the point.

The video ends on a rather too literal but nevertheless rhetorically effective note with a scrolling black-and-white text taken from a bronze plaque on public display in Plymouth. Created by the United American Indians of New England, it tells how Native Americans have been gathering in Plymouth on Thanksgiving Day annually since 1970 to observe a "National Day of Mourning." For them, reads the text, "Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their culture."

For Durant, the exhibition represents a convergence of art and politics that he has been pursuing since his days as a MassArt student. Now an affable 45 - year-old with a slightly distracted air, Durant recalled in a recent interview at the gallery that he was a late starter: Uncertainly motivated after high school, he worked in construction for two years before enrolling at MassArt.

"MassArt completely changed my life," he says. It was the creative freedom he most valued: "You could do anything you wanted there."

Nevertheless, after graduation he went back to construction work for another two years before entering the MFA program at the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles. "I realized that if I was going to become an artist, I had to get out of Boston," he says of his move to the West Coast.

At CalArts, a school famous for encouraging experimental approaches to making art (he now teaches there), Durant learned "to let the subject matter determine the form of the work," he says. Unlike a painter or a welder committed to a specific medium, Durant has worked in many different media , including drawing, photography, sculpture, installation, sound, and video.

At the same time, Durant has remained devoted to anti - establishment politics. At CalArts he read French theory and psychoanalytic literature, but was more interested in books about the US labor movement and histories of marginalized groups such as Native Americans and African-Americans. The African-American conceptual artist Adrian Piper has also been a major influence, he says.

The works that Durant made after finishing at CalArts in 1995 combined art-history references that only insiders would get and symbolism about more broadly accessible subjects. A piece called "Upside Down: Pastoral Scene" presented an array of upside-down tree stumps, each placed on a square mirror and each equipped with a speaker playing African-American music, including jazz, blues, and hip-hop. Not everyone would get the reference to Robert Smithson, the earthwork artist who also used mirrors and made upside-down tree sculptures, but the rueful meditation on African-American experience was inescapable.

Durant's resourceful mixing of avant- garde art and populist politics has earned him a high regard among curators in both Europe and the United States. He has been included in the 2004 Whitney Biennial, the 2005 Moscow Biennial, and many other group and solo shows here and abroad.

"I think he is a major artist," says Nicholas Baume , chief curator of Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art, who organized a Durant exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum in 2002. About the MassArt show, Baume says, "The more you look at it the weirder and more disturbing it becomes. I like that about Sam's work -- it can be very simple, but it resonates in many directions."

For a solo exhibition at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York last year, Durant presented his proposal for a public artwork that would entail transferring to Washington, D.C., 30 carved stone obelisks erected in different places out West to memorialize 19th-century Indian war massacres. He envisioned the monuments lining the reflecting pool running between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Small-scale maquettes of the monuments and a model of the proposed installation were shown in the gallery, and it was striking how absurdly improbable, elegantly logical, and emotionally moving an idea it was.

Durant's current show has a similar funny-elegiac quality. The ugly museum dioramas may represent a construction of history that today seems deeply disheartening in its obliviousness to the devastation inflicted upon America's first inhabitants, but they are also ridiculous. To laugh at them may be to break the baleful spell they have cast over the minds of generations of schoolchildren.

Ken Johnson can be reached at

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