Upon entering the fourth room of the 30 Americans exhibition viewers are confronted with an unavoidably powerful work by Gary Simmons. The piece, entitled “Duck, Duck, Noose” (1992), consists of a circle of some seven or eight wooden stools, each topped with a pointed white hood with cut holes for eyes, encircling an empty noose that hangs limply from above. It is a life size installation constructed mostly of ready objects (with the exception of the hoods) and occupies its own, ominously lit corner of the exhibition space. It is the first piece viewers see when entering the room and the last they must walk past in order to exit. Through a strategic juxtaposition of history, humor, and cultural symbolism Simmons gives a fresh and vital presence to a well documented, albeit significant, phenomenon.
Like Hank Willis Thomas, Gary Simmons capitalizes on viewers’ familiarity with certain objects and symbols. When we first encounter the piece, we immediately understand that the white hoods are meant to reference the notorious Ku Klux Klan and, by association, that the dangled and knotted rope in the center represents the body of a dead black man. The only unexplained element is the circle of stools; but this, too, makes perfect sense after reading the title. “Duck, Duck, Noose,” a play on a popular children’s game, adds another layer of meaning to the scene and takes the piece itself from powerful presentation of historical past to critical interpretation of sociocultural present. The title suggests the arbitrary nature of injustices committed against black men and women in America in the late nineteenth into the mid-twentieth century. The placement of the piece within the context of this exhibition brings to light injustices that are perpetually committed, against all types of people.
Overall, what makes this piece so successful is its placement in space and its facilitation of viewer participation. By simply arranging an assortment of objects in a particular way Simmons is able to conjure up a compendium of images and emotions in the minds of viewers. He is able to both elicit a response and infuse it with new meaning, and this, to me, is the mark of a successful standalone piece. By using only objects/symbols associated with people and history, rather than literal or figurative representations of them, Simmons requires viewers to fill in the most critical aspects of the narrative for themselves. Moving around the circle en route to the title placard we become equal players in a vicious game, implicated by our curiosity and the readiness with which we insert our own selves and histories into the blank hoods (or empty noose).
Gary Simmons, Duck, Duck, Noose, 1992. Wood, cloth, metal, and hemp, dimensions variable. Rubell Family Collection, Miami, Florida.
*Please note: the above is in response to 30 Americans as currently exhibited at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, TN. My opinions are in no way associated with or representative of the Frist Center, the Rubell family, or the artists.