Art review: Sam Durant’s historic gallows at Jupiter Artland

Durant's Scaffold in its atmospheric setting overlooking the Pentland Hills. Picture: Jane Barlow
Durant's Scaffold in its atmospheric setting overlooking the Pentland Hills. Picture: Jane Barlow
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DRIVING up to Jupiter Artland, Robert and Nicky Wilson’s award-winning sculpture garden at Bonnington House near Ratho, the newest addition to the landscape is unmissable.

On the highest spot of their land is a vast wooden construction, which might be an outsize children’s climbing frame or the beginnings of a tall new timber barn.

The truth is more ominous. Scaffold (2012), an artwork by the American artist Sam ­Durant, is crafted from the precise dimensions of a sequence of historical gallows. The most recent is that used for the execution of Saddam Hussein in 2006. The earliest dates back to 1859 for the hanging of John Brown for murder and treason while attempting to start a revolt against slavery.

Durant, earnest and softly spoken, is in Scotland for the launch, part of Jupiter’s fifth summer programme since opening to the public. He describes Scaffold as “a social space, literally a platform for exploration and play”. But it is play with purpose. “That sense of playfulness puts the participant in a very serious position, we can’t just fall back on our ideology.”

Historically accurate from their reconstructed dimensions to the timber used, the different structures are merged to create a kind of three-dimensional timeline: a history of American or American-endorsed executions.

There are no nooses on display, the structure is child-safe and the traps are indicative rather than functional. There is just a small plaque that explains the origins of the work. But standing on scaffold, with the wind whistling around your ears, looking out across the Pentland Hills, one can’t help but ponder what it means to take a life in the name of punishment.

Durant, who has researched the subject extensively but doesn’t claim expertise, says most experts have concluded that the system of capital punishment is expensive, prone to miscarriages of justice and ineffective as either deterrent or sanction, but that domestic debate on the subject is stifled. The United States is alone in Western democracies in maintaining the death penalty. In America, he says, “the easiest way for a politician to look tough on crime is to say ‘I’m for the death penalty’”. These days execution is conducted in private with invited audiences only, but the public language of Scaffold drags it back out into the open.

Durant tried for several years to realise the project in the US, but institutions have been cautious. Last summer, the five-yearly international art exhibition Documenta in Kassel, Germany, finally provided the opportunity. “In ­Kassel I knew that Americans would see it. A million people visited. If it’s too difficult a conversation in the US, then it allowed for them to reflect. But it also allows Europeans to reflect on their own history too.”

Now it’s on show at Jupiter Artland over the summer. ­Durant hopes new audiences will engage with the ideas behind the work and that the interest will continue to open doors. “The opportunity to show the work here was fantastic. Robert Wilson’s business is producing homeopathic remedies and this does function in a homeopathic way, providing the body with a tiny dose of antibody, allowing it to adapt. It’s an incredible personal satisfaction and I don’t think it’s an accident.”

That anyone approaching Jupiter Artland might be reminded of a hilltop gallows from an old Western movie is not accidental. Durant deliberately evokes the iconic or symbolic nature of execution. He talks with what is a kind of measured outrage at the extraordinary high levels of incarceration in the American justice system and what is now called “The School to Prison Pipeline” for many of his fellow citizens, particularly African-Americans.

Durant, 52, grew up in Boston, surrounded by the turmoil of social and political change. “I grew up close to Plymouth, to the mythology of the creation of America and its relationship to indigenous peoples. It made me start to question what was the official history and to examine its monuments.”

The son of an airline pilot (his brother now also flies) and admittedly rebellious as a teenager, he learned welding at school and began to mix with artists. He went on to study art in Boston and then Los Angeles, where he still lives.

Amongst the most profound experiences of his childhood was the impact of desegregation, when the suburban schools around him changed their status in an attempt to avoid it. Durant went to ­specialist schools which embraced the change. “I benefited from the new multicultural education.”

Race is important for Scaffold, he explains. “The Gallows do have a racial connotation in the US, the raised platforms and the method of death by hanging.” In American history they are reminiscent of the tree, “they are a sign of lynching”. The contextual infor­mation that goes with the artwork explains that one in 100 American men are in prison – one in nine African American men.

Although Durant is at pains to point out that the executions referred to in the work are very different and not meant to be compared, many of them are symbolic moments in American history. The execution of conspirators to assassinate Lincoln, for example, or the Mankato Gallows on which 38 Dakota Indians were hung in the largest mass execution in US history in 1863.

If it seems curious that Durant addresses these questions through the art world, he gently deflects potential criticism. “I’ve done a fair bit of activism too.” he says. “But really I’m an artist and I bring my own concerns to my work. All art is political. I imagine this could be useful work, but it’s not going to change things on its own. But it can be part of something. If it’s going to function as an artwork there has to be some poetry to it, something that makes you think.”

Twitter: @moirajeffrey

Scaffold is at Jupiter Artland until 15 September.