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Only days after it was installed, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities ruled that Abigail DeVille’s project had to go. Her installation was one of 25 works installed or planned as part of the commission’s biennial 5×5 public-art festival. But Anacostia residents complained that DeVille’s piece—“The New Migration,” a found-object installation that appeared to be a lot of junk strewn inside two storefronts at Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE—brought to mind the wrong vision for a lively Ward 8 intersection.
If DeVille’s study on black migration patterns reads to residents like blight, what does “Peep” say about Southwest? That’s a shipping container by artist Jonathan Fung installed at 4th and I streets SW, one that invites viewers to peer inside via port windows at toy blocks with children’s faces on them. Is trafficking or child slavery a problem on D.C.’s nonharbor waterfront? Or might it merely be a didactic take on Marcel Duchamp’s notorious peephole installation, “Étant donnés,” installed in the building block of the moment?
The relationship between temporary public artworks and the neighborhoods that host them has come to the fore with this year’s 5×5 festival, the program’s second iteration. The two projects scuttled, DeVille’s installation and “Antediluvian”—a submerged gas-station sculpture planned by Mia Feuer for the Anacostia River—were among the most provocative projects in the entire festival.
Unlike a lot of the artists tapped for 5×5 projects, Feuer is local, or at least was when Stephanie Sherman, one of the five curators of the festival, asked Feuer to be one of her five artists for the festival. (Today, she’s a professor of sculpture at the California College of the Arts.) Feuer simply works at a higher level than many of the artists participating in 5×5, so it’s perhaps no surprise that the artist couldn’t engineer a monumental work as just one of a suite of two-dozen-plus temporary projects in the District, many of which required little support (and make about as much impact). Had the commission thrown its full weight behind Feuer, her sculpture might’ve been built.
In the absence of “Antediluvian,” curator Lance Fung’s exhibition for 5×5 makes one of the most sweeping statements. “Nonuments,” an umbrella title for the five works under his purview, form a sort of temporary sculpture park in Southwest. Jonathan Fung’s “Peep” is one of these; so is “Migration,” a series of biomorphic sculptures by Cameron Hockenson that look like wasp nests that have taken to lumbering around the yard on stilted legs.
Works by Jennifer Wen Ma and Peter Hutchinson contribute to the anti-monumental theme. Wen Ma’s “Inked Garden” is a dark floral portrait, a display of flowering shrubs coated in charcoal-based ink and arranged in the shape of a face, a picture of suffering that blooms—with the flowers, if they blossom—into one of triumph. Hutchinson’s work is even more minimal: The octogenarian British artist threw a rope on the ground, letting the shape of its fall determine where he then planted a line of trees. The barely-there gesture is a memorial, a symbol for the lifeline that he could not throw to his brother, whom he lost in World War II, according to the artist’s statement. To a viewer, it might read more cerebrally—a kind of Bruce Nauman-meets-Ana Mendieta body-surrogate performance—and that is just as appropriate.
To fill out “Nonuments,” Eliza Naranjo Morse and her mother, Nora Naranjo Morse, plan to move earth around over the course of 30 days, digging mounds for some 580 combined hours in a gesture of futility that describes the anonymity of labor. “Nonuments” is the complete package—featuring performance, memorial, sculpture, and installation, all of the works invested with theatricality, and most of them quite successful. Nowhere else has a 5×5 curator made as much out of his or her charge. (In fact, there are six artists in “Nonuments”: Michael Koliner’s mud-and-straw seating sculptures are a late addition in the park theme.)
Which isn’t to say that there isn’t good work throughout the festival. Even though DeVille was pulled early, curator Justine Topfer can still boast a video installation by Soda_Jerk at the National Museum of Women in the Arts as one of the better works in the festival. Curator A.M. Weaver has assembled a stellar squad of artists (including one of D.C.’s rising stars, photographer Larry Cook) whose work focuses on black men, as bodies and figures. There’s no curator better for the project. Glenn Kaino’s “Bridge,” an installation selected by curator Shamim M. Momin, is the finest single piece in the show. For this piece, suspended in Building 170 in Navy Yard, Kaino made sculptures off a cast of Tommie Smith’s arm, the one that the athlete raised in a world-famous black power salute during the 1968 Olympic Games. The golden arms are hung like vertebrae in a paleontological exhibit. It’s a slick call-back to Nauman’s 1967 sculpture, “From Hand to Mouth.”
But the geographical cohesion of “Nonuments” gives it some advantages that the other mini-surveys lack. Too much of the display of Cook’s photography on the side of the Reeves Center is taken up by signage noting that it’s part of 5×5. This is a problem with a show that hides art like Easter eggs throughout the city: It calls for some signage. New York artist Dan Colen aims to use this feature to his advantage, disguising his lo-fi ephemeral works so they blend in with the urban cityscape. One of his contributions, at the rail underpass at 4th Street and Virginia Avenue SW, is a kinetic sculpture—a fedora carried by the wind. (It and another Colen underpass sculpture, a boombox playing fortune readings at 4th and E streets SW, only appear on Wednesdays at noon.) Another piece by Colen sounds so flippant I’m tempted to read it as an insult to D.C.: “Livin and Dyin,” a kind of cosplay performance that will star the artist and two others dressed as Wile E. Coyote, Roger Rabbit, and the Kool-Aid Man—a far cry from the paintings he is showing at Gagosian Gallery in New York this month.
What if these curators and artists weren’t competing against one another? While the 5×5 festival draws more attention to the whole—a few nonlocal arts journalists came to D.C. for a bus tour of all the works that were up at the very start—it also divides the purse between many projects. The commission’s focus on egalitarianism is noble, with projects spread across every ward, but it’s also narrowly focused on developing corridors, the places where temporary art is understood to do the most good.
That does some harm to D.C. The commission, and the District more broadly, relies too much on the pop-up model for supporting artworks. Really disruptive works tend to go where developers will make room for them. Outside the 5×5 festival, the commission emphasizes democracy, giving out too many grants that are too small-bore. I’d prefer to see the commission support transformative works, especially permanent works, that have the potential to shape neighborhoods—but are nevertheless merited even if they don’t. It’s true that the commission benefits many artists by giving out loads in small grants. Yet I’m convinced that by allocating more funds toward fewer and tighter projects, the commission would have a greater impact on the city.
Where A.M. Weaver’s thematically concentrated but geographically dispersed exhibition on black male portraits is just one corner of a festival, it really ought to be a festival on its own. Witnessing a date-specific performance on September 11 by sound artist Jace Clayton that combined traditional songs for the Ethiopian New Year with a choral interpretation of the color-threat scale maintained by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security after 9/11 convinced me that I’d like to know better what curator Sherman is thinking.
Any of these mini-exhibitions could go broader—but it might mean cutting out one or several wards and giving priority to an artist or curator’s vision, wherever that takes place. That’s a debate I’d like to see the commission tackle. Supporting art isn’t necessarily accomplished by distributing support evenly across four quadrants, especially when it’s contingent on neighborhood approval. For the 5×5 series to have a greater impact—both in D.C. and nationwide—the commission is going to need to put the artwork first.
For more information on locations and installation dates, visit the5x5project.com.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery