6 September – 30 December 2014
by LILLY WEI
This is the second edition of 5 x 5, an ambitious public arts festival in which five curators choose five artists to produce temporary works to be installed around Washington DC. The project, which is sponsored by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, resulted in artworks throughout the sprawling city’s eight wards, for the delectation of different communities. The five curators for this year are Lance Fung, Shamim M Momin, Stephanie Sherman, Justine Topfer and AM Weaver, who come from Los Angeles, New York, San Diego, San Francisco and Philadelphia, although where they call home is not so fixed in today’s peripatetic world.
The resulting roundup of artworks, as might be expected, is diverse in media, materials and content, and the dates for each of the curated projects variable. Adding several welcome surprises to the roster, the artists represent a cultural and aesthetic spectrum, among them Dan Colen, Diana al-Hadid, Brendan Fowler, Marianne Vitale, Kota Ezawa, Marley Dawson, Soda_Jerk, Ali Momeni, Agustina Woodgate, Mia Feuer and Jace Clayton. The emphasis is on political and social themes, tackling issues such as urban development and housing, public parks, the environment, identity, immigration, homeland security, boundaries and the empowerment of communities, with many artworks actively soliciting viewer response and engagement. The decentralisation of 5 x 5, while understandable in its wish to be inclusive, has its drawbacks. Many of the works installed are more or less independent ventures, but there are those that would have benefited from closer proximity to each other. And the time required to visit all the sites – for those so inclined – seems unrealistic.
Glenn Kaino, invited by Momin, the co-founder of Los Angeles Nomadic Division (Land, a non-profit organisation founded in 2009 committed to curating site-specific public art exhibitions in Los Angeles and beyond) presented a gleaming, sinuous structure suspended overhead that suggested a kind of celestial rope bridge. Aptly called Bridge, it traversed the vast interior of the historic Naval Building at 200 Tingey Street in south-east Washington, and is the single most spectacular work in 5 x 5. What appear to be slats are, in fact, gold-painted casts of African American Tommie Smith’s arm, posed in the same, controversial, clenched-fisted Black Power salute the athlete gave when he accepted his gold medal for the 200-metre race in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Momin said that, although it was a “tiny moment” in the life of Smith, that gesture has become an enduring symbol, a defining image in the ongoing history of civil rights, here repeated 200 times in a city – and America’s capital – that is still riven by race. It is a theme reiterated by Weaver’s curatorial project, Ceremonies of Dark Men. Created by Donald E Camp, Larry Cook, Isaac Diggs, Stan Squirewell and Michael Platt, striking photographic murals accompanied by poetic text have been placed throughout Washington like enormous advertising billboards, to counter the negative media images of black men that, despite the present incumbent of the White House, are still frequent.
Another standout was U.S.A.I.R.A.N, the gorgeously hybridised makeover of a vacant building on bustling H Street by Sanaz Mazinani, curated by Topfer. Formerly the home of the Robert L Christian Community Library, the building has been transformed into a faux-Islamic structure, embellished with elaborate Persian patterns that also suggest giddy kaleidoscopic designs, rich in colour. On closer inspection, however, it can be seen that the images in the patterns are sourced from western mass media. In intertwining Islamic and American culture, Mazinani seems to believe there is hope for a future reconciliation, despite the current absence of any Iranian representation in Washington DC, its stately embassy – which her structure conjures up – still closed as relations between the two countries remain fraught.
One of Topfer’s other artists, Bronx-based African American Abigail DeVille, did not fare so well, and her project will be relocated, underscoring some of the complications that can arise between public art projects and the people it wants to serve. Her installation of found objects, collected on a trek from Washington to Jacksonville in Florida, a journey that traced in reverse the “Great Migration” of millions of African Americans fleeing the rural south during Jim Crow days, was misunderstood and thought to be “junk” when installed in two storefronts on Good Hope Road in Anacostia. A predominantly black neighbourhood, Anacostia is one of Washington’s most blighted. The residents, probably unfamiliar with the idioms of contemporary art, thought it was insulting, and protested, since they were mired in enough trash. In evoking the Great Migration, however, DeVille’s intention was to liken it to the present plight of black Americans, once again forced to leave their homes, this time due to gentrification, a subject that Anacostians would seemingly have embraced.
A more acceptable comment on gentrification was Looking Back/Seeing Forward, a colourful wall mural on 1st and N Street, in the rapidly changing NoMa (North of Massachusetts Avenue) area, with vividly graphic street portraits of neighbourhood youth to commemorate its past, by the Oakland-based collective Dignidad Rebelde and Washington artist DECOY. Part of Sherman’s curatorial project, it marks the divide between the old and deteriorating and the newly sleek and shining – a divide that will undoubtedly shift again as development in these areas intensifies.
Fung, whose recent projects included Artlantic, for which he invited Kiki Smith, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Robert Barry and others to transform several vacant Atlantic City lots into a public park, decided to create another green space for 5 x5. Unlike the other curators, Fung clustered his five artists and their installations together at 990 4th Street, an empty, city-owned lot in another neighbourhood in the throes of gentrification. The following is an edited version of a conversation between Fung and Lilly Wei about his thoughts on art and urban renewal and transformation.
Lilly Wei: Could you tell me about the initial stages of this project?
Lance Fung: When John [Talley, the executive director of Fung Collaboratives] and I were invited to be part of 5 X 5, my instinct was to scatter works around the city, but even before our first site visit, we thought about our previous project, Artlantic, and what its successes were, and decided we would curate our project the way we would curate any group exhibition.
LW: So you conceived an exhibition called Nonuments, a term associated with Gordon Matta-Clark [1943-78].
LF: “Nonument” was a word coined by Gordon to describe the socially oriented work he made at the end of his life, but we used it to focus attention on Washington DC as a city of monuments, many of which are not so interesting. We commissioned artists to develop and create site-specific works about issues that interested them and were relevant to the site. We wanted something that was the opposite of monuments, hence “nonuments”. John and I agreed that it would be better to concentrate our efforts so that viewers could see the works together, in dialogue with each other, without having to go all over town. This way, it would also have a stronger neighbourhood presence and could be better absorbed.
LW: How did you pick your site?
LF: We picked this city-owned lot because it was in an area in transition, surrounded by public housing projects as well as recently renovated and newly constructed buildings for the more affluent. There are schools near it, churches, a metro stop, a Safeway and it is constantly in use.
LW: How did you select your five artists?
LF: In the belief that if you pick great artists they will do something great that will be a surprise. That, together, they will create an über-event. I wanted the works to have a strong conceptual base about worthy issues, as well as an equally strong visual presence. I wanted to see what they would do.
LW: And Peter Hutchinson was the first artist you invited?
LF: Yes. Peter, who is known for nature-based art, had just done a thrown rope work for Artlantic and, since gardening is his biggest hobby, I knew he would be good for this location. He threw a single, very long rope – a random act. The path it described after it fell was then planted with trees, which, in partnership with Casey Trees, whose staff gave tree-planting seminars, became a community event, aided by local children, their families and whoever else wanted to join in. The line the rope made was strategic, dividing the lot, functioning as an installation design for the space. It established the locations for the other artists’ works and helps viewers to circulate through the 1.5-acre space.
LW: Have you worked with the other artists before?
LF: I have with everyone except Jennifer Wen Ma and Jonathan Fung, which was one reason I selected them for this. I knew Jennifer’s work well and have been following her surreal, black-ink gardens for some time. For Nonuments, she wanted to make a work about an unsung hero or heroine who has to overcome everyday hardships, in contrast to the idealised figures of most Washington monuments. She created a portrait using plants and shrubs, the person portrayed selected by lottery from among the nominations requested. The leaves were coated with black ink, to signify hardship, but it is in the nature of animate things, human or plant, to survive. Eventually, the plants rid themselves of the ink through new growth, although some may perish. By now, there is hardly any ink left on the leaves, an optimistic sign and one that symbolises the resilience of the human spirit, as she so eloquently put it. I asked Jennifer to assemble her piece right at the entrance, at the crux of the pathway.
LW: It’s best seen aerially …
LF: Yes, it looks fantastic from high up, and some of the residents can see it from the surrounding buildings.
LW: Jonathan Fung’s work is an installation here, although he’s a film-maker and video artist. And he’s your brother, so you must know his work well?
LF: I’ve never worked with Jonathan before, but his subject is human trafficking, a deplorable and devastating problem that he’s been grappling with for years. I asked him because I wanted to bring awareness to a topic that’s particularly repugnant as well as poignant – one that’s not visible enough, not discussed enough. For this exhibition, Jonathan turned a large shipping container that he painted in garish colours into a peep show, revealing the interior by inserting a number of peepholes. On one side of the container, the installation [named Peep] suggests a sweatshop, on the other, it refers to the sex trade; both are about issues of forced labour, human abuse and victimisation. Jonathan wants viewers to become proactive, to volunteer their time and to donate funding, organising a symposium on the subject for the residents where he also showed Hark, his recent film about human trafficking, screened at the Cannes film festival this year.
LW: And Nora and Eliza Naranjo-Morse, a mother-and-daughter team, did a collaboration. How do they fit in?
LF: They are from New Mexico and live on the Santa Clara Pueblo reservation. I worked with Nora and Eliza when I curated Lucky Number Seven, the 2008 SITE Santa Fe international biennial. They collaborated on a performance-based installation for Nonuments, but they usually work independently. Wielding hand tools, Nora and Eliza created patterns in the earth and built mounds, changing the nondescript lot into a more complex landscape, returning the land from its present bureaucratic semblance back to a more natural and humanised state. Wearing different uniforms – business suits, Native New Mexican garb, nurses’ uniforms and more – they represent different occupations from different rungs of the social ladder. Their performance is their job for the duration of the show and they will work 9am to 5pm, six days a week. They hope to create confusion about social hierarchies and to highlight bias. In the end, they would like their viewers to understand that all labour deserves respect and should be valued. By being on site, this work gave Nonuments its distinctive presence, and many of the people who encountered them – kids, people walking their dogs or just passing through – stayed to talk. Many returned, offering support and refreshments, and became part of the process, as they did with all the artists working in the lot.
LW: Cameron Hockenson, the fifth artist, was formerly your student. His work is the most sculptural, the most like a monument but also weird-looking, with its hive-like, knobbly surfaces raised on spikey legs. Would you talk about it a little?
LF: I invited Cameron because I knew he could do monumental work that would be a contrast to the others, yet wouldn’t be a traditional monument. His gigantic sculptural forms – which have been called aliens by some of the residents – are based on birds’ nests, greatly enlarged. They were built with students from the area, the three nests grouped together to form a kind of avian condo for migrating birds – and they came. It envisions a kind of city of the future, built through our capacity to innovate through science and technology, but also criticises the dehumanisation of careless overdevelopment and how neighbourhoods are destroyed by it.
LW: What will Nonuments’ legacy to the neighbourhood be?
LF: The residents have been so pleased with the pathways the show put down that we got extra support to make a permanent one. It will make the lot much easier to cross, especially for strollers and older and handicapped people, and it will remain as long as the site is undeveloped. We offered to donate the Hutchinson piece with its 30 trees to the city, but it wasn’t accepted so we will donate the trees to the neighbourhood instead. John and I worked closely with our community, including local schools and the Washington Project for the Arts, a non-profit, independent arts organisation that supports contemporary art and artists; we have a continuing relationship with all of them. We took the project very seriously and worked hard on it. It was something we believed in.