As American colonists hellbent on winning their liberty fired shots at British soldiers across the Concord River in April 1775, William Emerson watched from his neighboring field. Emerson, who went on to become a chaplain in the Continental Army, was a slaveholder. His slaves lived in the attic of the Old Manse, the home Emerson had built five years before. Did he give a thought to their liberty?
“The Meeting House,” Sam Durant’s installation at the Old Manse, unspools the dark history of slavery and racial oppression against the whitewashed, romantic version of US history most of us learned in grade school, and traces the consequences to the present day.
The installation is part of “Art and the Landscape,” The Trustees of Reservations’ new public art initiative, inaugurated over the summer with two projects curated by Pedro Alonzo. The other, Jeppe Hein’s “A New End,” a far cry from Durant’s piece in intention and execution, can be found on a narrow neck of land on the World’s End reservation in Hingham. The Trustees oversee World’s End and the Old Manse, along with more than 100 other conservation properties around Massachusetts.
“The Meeting House” runs on undercurrents. It’s not visually grand; it consists of a place for public conversation and a variety of documents and signs around the property that coolly point out blind spots of white privilege.
We can be self-congratulatory about conserving land as The Trustees do, for instance. Until we come upon the artist’s sign explaining how conservation in Concord has driven up property values, limiting racial integration. “Today Concord has about the same percentage of African American residents as it did in the 1770s,” the sign says. “More than one third of them are in the Concord prison.”
For those of us who take innocent pride in heroic tales of the Revolution, Durant’s information is unnerving if not surprising.
We might pat John Adams on the back for writing into the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution “All men are born free and equal,” which provided grounds for slaves to sue their owners and led to the end to lawful slavery in the Commonwealth.
But did you know that once freed, blacks in Concord had to settle on infertile land in Walden Woods? If they couldn’t grow food, how were they expected to live? In an interview, Alonzo noted a contemporary parallel: urban food deserts, where supermarkets are miles away and all the local food comes from convenience stores and fast food restaurants.
Durant is staging several events at “The Meeting House,” a welcoming pavilion with a glowing yellow canopy and a floor plan modeled on a freed black family’s home. The timing couldn’t be better.
Two final events are scheduled for this weekend. “Lyceum III: A New Framework for Dialogue,” a panel discussion about how to productively talk about race, will take place at “The Meeting House” on Oct. 15 from 2-4 p.m. The other, “Lyceum IV: New England Town Hall Meeting,” at which the public can respond to the installation, will be on Oct. 16 from 2 p.m.-4 p.m. at Concord’s First Parish church.
Alonzo specializes in public art. He was the sly curator behind French artist JR’s surprise installation high on the glass walls of the former John Hancock tower last year. His choices for the Old Manse and World’s End demonstrate the breadth of his vision. He has tapped artists with international standing to create ambitious art that reflects its environs.
That’s literally true at World’s End, where Danish artist Jeppe Hein has built “A New End” from columns of reflective steel. While Durant’s conceptual piece pulls the curtain back on history, Hein’s work is all about landscape and, thanks to the mirrors, the viewer in the landscape. Like the mirrored sculptures of Anish Kapoor, they invite hijinks.
It’s hard to even spot “A New End” on approach; at first, it looks like abandoned fencing. But get close and you’ll find a spiraling labyrinth of mirrors, which rise and fall in height to echo the reservation’s drumlins.
The labyrinth is not so large you can get lost in it, but the mirrors convolute any sense of what’s real. Because the columns’ edges as well as their faces are reflective, I found myself thinking the edges belonged to the interstices, and more than once tried to reach between mirrors only to poke my hand into solid steel.
Tree branches hang in the sky with no supporting trunk; the sky appears where branches should be. My own reflection would reorient me to reality, so I made a game of hiding from myself — which introduced a discomforting conceptual layer to the work. Once you get past goofing around, this installation, like any labyrinth, invites contemplation.
Hein’s installation takes in trees, sky, grass, water, and you, and throws it all back out shuffled, fracturing the landscape and opening it to another, more mystical dimension.
“The Meeting House” soberly shakes loose the version of history passed down through generations, and may spur you to question your own beliefs. “A New End” invites a quieter quality of self-reflection. Both help you to see their sites through new eyes.
SAM DURANT: THE MEETING HOUSE
At The Old Manse, 269 Monument St., Concord, through Oct. 31. 781-740-7233, www.thetrustees.org/art
JEPPE HEIN: A NEW END
At World’s End, Martins Lane, Hingham, through Oct. 31, 2017. 978-369-3909, www.thetrustees.org/art
Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.