Art Seen: National

TWENTY FIVE ARTISTS, FIVE CURATORS // 5 x 5

by Tara Plath

The D.C. public art initiative 5×5 kicked off this September, produced by the D.C. Commission of Arts and Humanities, providing us with a rich ground for conversation about the possibilities and challenges of public art. It is not an easy task to have a constructive and critical dialogue about public art. The goals of an art project in a public sphere are often more vague, and the success less quantifiable than works that are collected, exhibited in recognized institutions, or with market value. In its second year, 5×5 brings five curators to the District to curate five artists each, producing five distinct interpretations of what public art can be. Curators Lance Fung, Shamim M. Momin, Stephanie Sherman, A.M Weaver, and Justine Topfer applied their own experience and interests to activate a city with art. What results overall is too far-reaching and multi-faceted to be summed up in brief, though deserves a greater conversation.

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Bridge by Glenn Kaino, curated by Shamim M. Momin. Image: Joshua Cogan.

Each curator provides a unique angle at which to approach the complexity of public art. Shamim M. Momin’s project Alter/Abolish/Address took a very straightforward approach of inviting artists to install works around the city. The works were generally subtle and easy to miss unless you were privy to their existence and seeking them out, such as Glenn Kaino’s Bridge, a previous iteration recently exhibited at the Studio Museum in Harlem and at EXPO CHICAGO in 2013 as part of IN/SITU curated by Momin at Navy Pier, gracefully spanned the length of an altogether different and vacant historic Navy building in the recently re-developed Navy Yard.

Curator Lance Fung of Fung Collaborative considered the project from the perspective of community involvement, chosing to fill one lot—a park in the Southwest Neighborhood—with his five artists. His project Nonument, whose strengths lie in direct community involvement and meaningful one-on-one interactions with the local population, results in at times underwhelming aesthetic experiences. Fung seemed more than aware of this himself as he spoke at the opening day events of Fung Collaborative’s work in addressing reduced park budgets by funding public parks as art projects. Nonument worked with a limited budget of $100,000 to present the works of artists such as land artist Peter Hutchinson and Jennifer Wen Ma.

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Peep by Jonathan Fung. Image courtesy of the artist.

Kael Anderson, President of the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly also spoke of the positive impact of the artists presence in the park over the previous several weeks, explaining to the crowd why we were standing amongst “peepshows, asteroids, and baked potatoes” aka the various installations and sculptures in the park. The community response was tangible, as awards were given to students who submitted their own ideas for “nonuments,” and the artists stood by their works happy to speak with curious visitors. The work extended beyond the park itself to include workshops and screenings, such as Jonathan Fung’s film Hark, to accompany his installation Peep, both of which highlight the atrocities of human trafficking.

The richest project is Stephanie Sherman’s Near Futures, which not only embeds its chosen artists in the city’s landscape, but also responds in carefully considered and dynamic ways. For instance, on September 11, Near Futures artist Jace Clayton (aka DJ/rupture) presented the performance, Enkutatash. While 9/11 is embedded in the global consciousness as the day the Twin Towers were attacked, it is also the Ethopian New Year and D.C. is home to the largest Ethiopian community outside of Ethiopia. Enkutatash overlayed the Home Land Security color-coded threat level advisory system onto the celebration of a local community complete with Ethiopian food and DC based musical acts.

Still upcoming is Mia Feuer’s Flooded Lectures, which originated as a proposal to submerge a gas station in the Anacostia River but was met with vocal resistance from the coalition United for a Healthy Anacostia River, who believed the imitation gas station could work against efforts to change public perception that the river is a polluted eye-sore[1]. Sherman and Feuer smartly absorbed the could-be controversy into an opportunity for more intimate conversation and engagement in the form of boat tours on the river with performances and presentations by a long list of collaborators, including The Anacostia Watershed Society.

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​Enkutatash, Jace Clayton, Sept 11, 2014. Credit: Raul Zahir De Leon, The Wilderness Bureau

Public art often occupies a space defined by foreignness and disorientation, relying heavily on either pure aesthetic value to captivate unexpected viewers, or a didactic delivery of concept and intention. A project on the scale of 5×5 offers more than twenty-five examples of how artists can activate, investigate, and engage in spaces outside of galleries or museums. Perhaps most impressive is the exhaustive list of partnerships and collaborations involved in each project, that extends the works further than artist and viewer to include the organizations: from churches to activists, local poets and musicians, area schools, and the list goes on, abstractly mapping the diverse culture of Washington D.C. itself.

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Tara Plath is an artist and writer based in New York City. She currently works at Whitebox Art Center. She holds a Bachelors of Fine Arts with an emphasis in sculpture and a Bachelors of Arts in Visual and Critical Studies from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

5 x 5 began in early September and will end by December of 2014.


[1] http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/23651/a-sunken-gas-station-sculpture-sends-the-wrong-message-about-the-anacostia-river/

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