By the time it made landfall in Charleston, Hurricane Hugo had packed sustained winds of approximately 138 miles per hour, with gusts exceeding 160 miles per hour. This was September 22, 1989, and the Category 4 hurricane was one of the most destructive to strike the U.S.A. in the 20th century. Seawater surged into the historic downtown, flooding streets and buildings; roofs flew off 80 percent of the peninsula, and trees were uprooted or snapped. Charleston’s historic district was devastated, and extensive preservation efforts went well into the mid-1990s.
This was the scene when the artists began arriving in town for artistic research before the 1991 Spoleto Festival U.S.A., specifically, the visual arts component, Places with a Past: New Site-Specific Art in Charleston. The exhibition, curated by Mary Jane Jacob, invited artists to use this historic city as its medium. It used the previously well-preserved historic district full of beautiful antebellum homes, cobblestone streets, and charming pastel-colored buildings as its muse. The artists chose their own sites and used those locations to reevaluate Charleston’s past. Jacob drew inspiration from the 1987 Skulptur Projekte Münster, an exhibition initiated and curated by Kaspar König and Klaus Bussman. In this project, approximately 50 artists were invited to engage with the historical and contemporary aspects of the historically reconstructed German city. What particularly captured her attention was the Concert in Reverse by Rebecca Horn, where she utilized choreographed knocking sounds and flickering light to bring life to a former prison dungeon and execution site of Polish and Russian prisoners that the Gestapo had reactivated.
Jacob ventured beyond the confines of the traditional museum setting to explore how artists could utilize the broader sphere for creative exploration. She aimed to understand how art could communicate with and convey messages to the wider culture. She sought to “question the authority of history, society, and cultural authorities.”
Places with a Past brought 23 artists to Charleston, where they worked on 18 projects. The exhibition spread throughout the city from an orientation center in the Gibbes Museum of Art. It led visitors to explore little-known areas for tourists who seldom venture beyond King Street. Ann Hamilton created a monument to the forgotten working men with a colossal mound of blue work shirts and pants, weighing 14,000 pounds and illuminated by natural light within an abandoned garage on Indigo Street. Joyce J. Scott arranged fallen trees, victims of Hurricane Hugo in 1989, on top of the four surviving Corinthian columns from the old Charleston Museum in Canon Park. Using chains and intricate beadwork, Scott transformed these columns into representations of weeping willows, symbolizing tears. A suspended black tree seemed to emerge like a symbol of a lynched figure rising from the ashes of the painted logs below it. In the old city jail, built in 1802 and closed in 1939, Anthony Gormley opened every door and window, allowing the cells to fill with light and flow with the wind. With 20,000 small terra-cotta figures facing the exit, he transformed a place of confinement into a site of liberation. Lorna Simpson’s immersive installation occurred across five chambers within former slave quarters. The names of slave ships and black baby dolls that alluded to infant mortality and the haunting strains of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” spoke to the arduous journey endured by enslaved people from Africa to Charleston and their experiences upon arrival.
Charleston remains different by staying the same. Much of the city remains frozen in time, this real-life place that has been carefully crafted to emulate an idealized, charming, and picturesque city. A time when America was America. Often disparaged as “Confederate Disneyland.” Regardless of how the city might try to sanitize itself, Charleston serves as a poignant reminder of a distinctly American reality: the enduring legacy of slavery has left its mark on every aspect of life here, even after centuries have passed. The many walking tours, horse-drawn carriage tours, and plantation tours will tell you about how “aristocracy had built Charleston.” They will tell you about prominent white industrialists such as Nathaniel Russell, William Aiken, and Joseph Manigault and fail to mention their roles in the institution of slavery. And yet it is said that 80% of Black Americans today can trace an ancestor back to Charleston before being sold into bondage (90% have ancestral connections to South Carolina).
Two things are simultaneously true: Charleston is unbelievably beautiful, and Charleston is profoundly fucked.
Thirty-two years after Places with a Past, only one of the original installations remains and exists as a permanent public park. This is a two-part installation titled America Street and House of the Future by David Hammons. During his first visits to Charleston, he initially intended to construct a house with a toppled tree across its roof. This image would likely have resonated strongly, considering the devastation caused by Hugo. Yet, this concept was not overtly political. But during this time, he met a contractor named Albert Alston, who was restoring historic homes in the area. Alston convinced him the work would be overly negative. Hammons worked with Alston to help him build the house that would amalgamate Charlestonian architecture. It would be a play-off of the Charleston Single House, a structure almost wholly unique to the Lowcountry of South Carolina. They conceived of a remarkably idiosyncratic, hardly functional two-story structure, approximately 6 feet in width and 20 feet in length, cobbled together from salvaged building materials. Alston wanted the house to be a site for education on different styles and materials, so they attached small explanatory plaques: “V-crimp,” and “tongue and groove novelty siding.”
A humble version of the Charleston Single House is well-suited to a long, narrow lot, with two floors and a single-story piazza, positioned to take advantage of the local winds and shield residents from the intense sun. It’s on the back side of the home where things are more contentious. Here, Hammons painted a quote from African-American writer Ishmael Reed: “The Afro-American has become heir to the myths that it is better to be poor than rich, lower class than middle or upper, easy-going rather than industrious, extravagant rather than thrifty, and athletic rather than academic.” Despite limited complaints from the neighborhood residents, it was moments like this that led Spoleto founder Gian Carlo Menotti to call the exhibition “silly and sophomoric,” saying it was not fit for “a cheap discotheque.”
Catty-corner to the house is a small park that features a one-story billboard with a blue monochrome photo that Hammons took of a group of schoolchildren standing together, looking up in a quiet and respectful pose that demonstrates patriotism and reverence. The children’s faces are tilted toward Hammon’s 40-foot “flagpole of dignity,” his African-American Flag, 1990. Featuring 13 stripes and 50 stars in the colors taken from the Pan-African Universal Negro Improvement Association—red, black, and green—the flag stands as an unwavering work of art prominently displayed within Charleston’s historically black East Side. Before the exhibition, city ordinances prohibited billboards in residential neighborhoods; however, in the East Side, they were pretty prevalent. Hammons repurposed this billboard, previously used for Newport cigarettes advertising.
The House of the Future was Hammons’ second version of a home. In 1985, he collaborated with Angela Valerio and architect Jerry Barr to create Delta Spirit as part of Creative Time’s “Art on the Beach” (an initiative in a dune-like landfill area formed during the excavation for the World Trade Center). Though very few photographs of Delta House exist, the construction acted as a stage for musicians, including Sun Ra and his Arkestra, to perform. In an interview between Hammons and Kellie Jones that appeared in ART PAPERS July/August 1988, he spoke of the home in New York in much the same way he could have been talking about building with all salvaged materials in Charleston: “I called it Delta Spirit because it was about that kind of spirit that’s in the South. I just love the houses in the South, the way they built them. That Negritude architecture. I really love to watch the way Black people make things, houses, or magazine stands in Harlem, for instance. Just the way we use carpentry. Nothing fits, but everything works. The door closes, it keeps things from coming through. But it doesn’t have that neatness about it, the way white people put things together; everything is a 32nd of an inch off.”