Who could hate a mess of wood, brass, and plastic balls?
Apparently, a lot of people. The “Infinity Beacon,” a temporary mish-mash of a sculpture unveiled last month, was supposed to brighten up a gloomy corner of Ward 8. Instead, it’s been received so badly that the District government might remove it before its six-week installation period is up.
“They put some junk up there and then want to tell us to like that,’ Patrice Sheppard, the founder of nearby nonprofit Lydia’s House, says.
The last thing the intersection of Atlantic Ave. SE, S. Capitol St. SE, and Mississippi Ave. SE needs is more junk. It’s home to an AutoZone. That’s great if you want to fix you car, less great if you don’t want people hanging around fixing their cars in your neighborhood all day. A junkyard across the street doesn’t do much for the aesthetics. Even a nearby Capitol Bikeshare station isn’t without controversy—Sheppard complains that it draws loiterers who use the bikes like a makeshift spin class.
All that makes the corner an ideal candidate for a beautification public art project organized by the District’s Office of Planning and funded with more than $10,000 from the Michigan-based Kresge Foundation. But when it comes to public art in the District, everybody’s a critic.
“It’s horrible,” Ward 8 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Olivia Henderson says. “It really is bad on the eyes.”
On its face, the “Infinity Beacon” seems like the kind of anodyne, designed-by-committee art that wouldn’t offend anyone. The structure, created by Charneice Fox Richardson, Kimberly C. Gaines, and Noah Williams, features a collage of pictures of students who go to school nearby, with a big “8” on top. And it’s not even going to be there permanently!
As soon as Henderson saw the final result, though, she didn’t like it. In an email sent to various Ward 8 activists and the District’s Office of Planning last week, Henderson demanded changes to the sculpture or its immediate removal. She didn’t bring up her concerns in the planning process, she said, because she didn’t want to offend the artists.
Sheppard compares the final result to the junkyard on Sanford and Son. As for Henderson, she says she’d rather see something else much less elaborate at the corner: garbage cans.
“They could’ve put trash cans in the middle of that empty space,” Henderson says.
With respect to the artists and the inherent subjectivity of art, the “Infinity Beacon” does look ugly. Burlap rings the project’s base, making it look like a tiny tent. In an email to the project’s opponents, Office of Planning staffer Tracy Gabriel conceded that the burlap was “unsightly.”
And then there are the balls. Yes, some of those balls from the National Building Museum’s 2015 “Beach” installation made it into the “Infinity Beacon.” Many of them are installed in Dupont Underground, but some ended up in bins around the Infinity Beacon for some reason. Like glitter that hangs around long after the craft project is forgotten, those balls will be with us forever.
And the balls are a hot topic for the art’s opponents, a symbol of the art’s thrown-together nature. “I don’t know what the purpose of those bubbles are,” Shepperd says. “It’s just a joke.”
Henderson, who insists that the balls were added late in the project, is no ball fan either. “It’s like they just threw it into the project,” she says.
This isn’t Ward 8’s only recent brush with controversial public art. In 2014, the city-backed 5×5 temporary public art project funded “The New Migration,” an installation in an Anacostia storefront composed of broken wood and other detritus of displacement. Then-Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry was even involved in an attempt to remove it that ultimately succeeded, claiming that he had the D.C. Fire and EMS department declare the artwork a fire hazard.
The “Infinity Beacon” may soon join “New Migration” in the trash bin. In an email last week to Henderson, Office of Planning Ward 8 coordinator Evelyn Kasongo wrote that the District had decided to remove the structure. Now the agency has backtracked, opting instead to take community input about the project’s fate, according to Office of Planning spokesman Edward Giefer.
Ward 8 activist Phil Pannell, who’s involved in public art planning elsewhere in the ward, thinks the art’s opponents could use their time more productively.
“When you have a substantial percentage of your residents dealing with questions of daily survival, art criticism seems to not be at the top of the agenda,” Pannell says.
The “Infinity Beacon” has at least one supporter: retiree Leroy Mack, who was passing the time last week in the AutoZone parking lot. He likes it!
“People don’t know nothing about art,” Mack says.