Punchy 5×5 Public Art Project Electrifies Washington DC
New York may be king, but Washington wants to be president of public art.
For most people, thinking of public art in Washington, DC conjures images of presidential monuments and Smithsonian sculpture gardens. But, far from the National Mall, the US capital is making new contemporary public art a priority. Last month the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities launched the second edition of the 5×5 Project, a public art initiative shifting the focus onto the city’s patchwork of distinct neighborhoods and providing a platform for outdoor artworks of a more unmonumental stripe.
The initiative is led by five curators, each of whom presented five works following a theme of their choosing, with predictably varied and uneven results. One standout is A.M. Weaver‘s “Ceremonies of Dark Men,” which may be the most successful of the recent string of billboard art projects (see “The 58 Most Beloved American Artworks” and “Artists Hit the Highway in Search of New Viewers“). Weaver juxtaposes excerpts from poems about black men with artists’ photographs addressing issues of representation and identity. The results are surprisingly powerful. The project’s direct engagement with the city’s history of segregation is one of the few in the 5×5 Project that addresses the local politics of DC—not surprising, as Weaver is the only local curator involved. An augmented reality app component, which presents additional photos by the artists and features each poet reading the excerpted piece in full, should be considered essential rather than supplemental viewing.
A subtler and more ephemeral commentary on the particular schisms of Washington, DC, is mother-daughter performance art duo Eliza and Nora Naranjo Morse’s Digging, curated by Lance Fung. Every day for a month, the artists and a team of paid performance art workers dug holes and built mounds of earth in the vacant lot—currently serving as a park but slated for real estate development—hosting Fung’s portion of the 5×5 Project, “Nomunents.” Each day, the Morses and their collaborators donned the trademark uniform of a different type of DC-area worker; white collar office casual one day, security guard navy blue the next, followed by ominous hazmat suits, hospital scrubs, and fast food restaurant polo shirts and visors. These apparent employees toiling away at a task not only completely unrelated to the profession suggested by their uniforms—where are the miners’ overalls and headlamps, or the gravediggers’ somber duds?—but also evocative of a different century, make for an enjoyably absurd sight. The work also seems to poke fun at DC as a city of short-term, migrant workers too preoccupied with their specific task in the city to become involved and invested in it in any meaningful way.
Another 5×5 Project piece about migrant workers was deemed insensitive for the way it engaged with the surrounding community: Abigail DeVille’s The New Migration. Conceived as a two-part work in DC’s Anacostia neighborhood, it began with a public procession and performance on the evening of September 6, and was accompanied by one of DeVille’s trademark post-apocalyptic installations in two adjacent vacant storefronts. While the former was well attended, despite a rainstorm, the latter drew complaints for replicating the destitute conditions that, not so long ago, defined the redeveloping neighborhood (see “Community Outrage Forces Public Art Project’s Dismantling in DC“). Finally removed after the local fire department deemed it to be a fire hazard, DeVille’s installation was apparently too successful in its evocation of poverty, urban renewal, and gentrification. I’d argue that any public art piece that sparks awareness, interest, and can galvanize the local community is already more successful than a giant marble statue of a dead powerful man.
Dan Colen‘s slightly more poetic interpretation and use of urban blight didn’t draw the same kinds of criticism, though curator Shamim M. Momin did anticipate that one of his pieces would be a popular target for thieves. For Fortune Teller, he installed a boombox on a small table under a highway overpass. If the boombox is still there—Colen and Momin bought 50 in anticipation of theft—and you listen very carefully, you’ll hear recordings of fortune tellers’ predictions for Colen’s future. An even more fleeting intervention, the seemingly simple Hat—in which a hat tumbles along the sidewalk under a different overpass with the aid of two hat wranglers—is a mirage-like reference to an iconic shot in the Coen Brothers film Miller’s Crossing. I’m skeptical as to whether or not it really conjures “a sense of poetic despair and hope abandoned,” as the artist and curator intended, but it’s undoubtedly a cool effect.
To be sure, there are plenty of 5×5 Project works playing on the iconic statuary and architecture of DC. Sanaz Mazinani‘s fantastic U.S.A.I.R.A.N. is a makeshift Iranian embassy the artist created by wrapping the exterior of a vacant building in her trademark photo-mosaics. A mural by Dignidad Rebelde—the duo of Melanie Cervantes and Jesus Barraza—takes up tropes of classical statuary and juxtaposes them with colorful portraits of children living in the rapidly gentrifying NoMa neighborhood. Glenn Kaino’s impressive Bridge deconstructs the conventions of bronze monuments, isolating African American Olympic gold medalist Tommie Smith’s raised fist—an expression of Black Power that got him expelled from the 1968 Games—and turning it into a giant wave of disembodied arms. As with the best of the 5×5 pieces, Kaino’s installation adds some serious punch to DC’s public art offerings.
Parts of the 5×5 Project have already ended, while others have yet to begin and many continue through December. Check the 5×5 Project website for details.
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