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Q&A with Walter Hood, 'Double Sights’ architect

<h6>Walter Hood discusses “Double Sights.”</h6>
<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Walter Hood discusses “Double Sights.”
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

Walter Hood is an acclaimed architect and a 2019 MacArthur Fellow. Hood designed "Double Sights," an installation aimed at recognizing the complicated legacy of Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879. The installation was dedicated on Oct. 5.

Daily Princetonian: I wanted to start by asking a little bit about the design of the installation. In your TED Talk, you lay out your philosophy of design — including “existence in each others worlds,” “two-ness,” and “empathy.” I’m curious as to which parts you focused on more when you were designing “Double Sights.”

Walter Hood: Probably a little bit of all them. I think the piece for me, you know, this notion of remembering … and trying to tie together things that I had even forgotten. I thought I knew [W.E.B] Du Bois, I thought I knew [Booker T.] Washington, I thought I knew Ida B. Wells … I didn’t know these people had voiced ... their lack of trust and anger towards Wilson during his presidency in very powerful ways trying to hold him accountable. So this idea of memory hopefully works with that …

Making a piece of art, I want it to be multiplicitous in its meaning, and it can’t be that way unless people “do the work,” as some artists say, you know? I want, I’m hoping people “do the work” to experience it so they can actually see the multiplicitous aspect.

DP: You mention re-examining Ida B. Wells and the legacy. I’m wondering, when you were researching the project, what stood out to you most about Woodrow Wilson that you didn’t know before?

WH: Everything! Everything from segregating the government, to his views on, while he’s at Bryn Mawr, on teaching women. I mean all of these kind of more disturbing aspects of a president that I knew very little about. But also, how do you take that and put it in a work? Like I said in my talk, one of my friends was saying, maybe the sculptural aspect was enough, but from the University’s point, they wanted it to be more pedagogical. I was trying, still, ... to make it pedagogical without making it pedagogical, if that makes sense. I don’t want it to be about “oh, go up and read it,” but that there is something about it, that it is stirring people, and I think that’s a good thing.

I hope that’s a good thing that it’s stirring people to be more critical and more articulate about what it's stirring — that’s a hard thing, that’s where the work has to happen.

DP: I want to switch gears a little bit, because I do want to talk about one of the critiques I’ve heard about the project. There’s a line in your TED Talk that I really liked, where you say “there’s an ambiguity between things, because that ambiguity allows us to have a conversation. When things are clear and defined, we forget.” But on the flip-side, I’ve heard some people say about the sculpture that, there’s an op-ed in the ‘Prince,’ for example, that says, “by continuing to ‘complicate’ the legacy of Woodrow Wilson, the University reinforces its own unwillingness to outrightly challenge racism.” Is this a fair characterization? The student says there’s a false equivalence. Is that a fair characterization? 

WH: For me, I don’t think it complicates it through its complexity. For me, as an artist, I think it challenges us to try to understand the complexity, versus, you know, the “guy on the horse,” we get it — he’s the hero. [referring to Kehinde Wiley’s “Rumors of War” in Times Square]. He’s using the same vocabulary in that way. Here, we have the Fountain of Freedom here, this abstract piece in front of the Wilson School. And to me this kind of, again, using this abstraction in a way not to, again, make it abstract, but I’m hoping in a way that brings clarity. To me, as the artist, I think when you step inside and read the quotes of his detractors and see their faces, to me, that should be clear ... [It is] challenging our view of Wilson through the lens of the people of his day, most of whom happened to be African American …

Making the piece, that was kind of the profound moment for me — where it’s like, “I don’t have to have the voice, I just need to figure out the construction for those voices to be heard.” Because, doing the research, to me, those voices weren’t heard in a monumental way. I want those faces to almost claim the piece. And that’s how I see it as a person making it.

When I came last night, I was walking up, and I saw those faces at that scale. To me, that’s what the piece was really about.

DP: When somebody observes the statue, if there is an ideal reaction you would like them to have, what would it be?

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WH: [First,] I want them to see it as a piece of sculpture … For me, that act of creating that triangulated space, I want people to be drawn in and be curious about it. I think that’s what good art does. It challenges us, but it also hopefully frees us …

This was my first time making a piece that has this kind of subtext to it. You know, other pieces that I’ve made that are about these lost histories, there’s a kind of warmth and fuzziness to it that can happen — you exhume this history we didn’t know about us, whether it’s about slavery, or other kinds of negative aspects of our existence here in the U.S. and our trials and tribulations.

And then when we move to the other side, that’s when it becomes this new position where I’m taking this point of, “I’m critiquing this guy through the art.” And that's really challenging because we don’t really have many examples in this country to draw from … To me, to have the opportunity to critique a white man, particularly on Princeton’s campus, is an opportunity to kind of think in a different way …

Now, the critique of the school name and all these other things — that’s the context of the piece. And hopefully, who knows? All I can say is. who knows what that might allow to happen. I’ve seen stranger things happen when there have been these shifts in how we view things collectively in this country.

But there is still that other side where people want these things to be really clear. They want to understand them in very clear ways, and I’ve had people ask me these questions. Well, you have to do the work, to a certain degree.