Hemmed in by Covid19 strictures that keep us apart, creative people have discovered imaginative new ways to connect. Drive-in movies (remember those, Boomers?) are enjoying new popularity, providing safe social distancing along with the community experience movie fans crave. The Metropolitan Opera’s recent “Gala” featured its major artists—singers, orchestra, chorus—in Zoom performances that gave opera lovers fascinating glimpses into the talents and personalities of favorite performers. Dance wizard Mark Morris has been conducting Zoom rehearsals with his troupe, and a piece he originally choreographed for this summer’s Tanglewood Festival has now been reimagined as a video entitled “Lonely Waltz” that streams on his website. (markmorrisdancegroup.org)
Artists have also joined the virtual fray. In partnership with the Art Production Fund, artist Nancy Baker Cahill launched an “Augmented Reality” animation entitled Liberty Bell on July 4th. The Fund’s Executive Director, Casey Fremont, explained that the idea was to give viewers “the opportunity to reflect upon their personal experiences of liberty, injustice, and inequality” by displaying this prime symbol of American Independence.
The work is accessible by Baker’s free “4th Wall” app, and a viewer simply aims a cell phone at the intended site for the bell to appear. There are six Liberty Bell sites: in Boston where the Tea Party occurred, at Fort Tilden in Queens, Fort Sumter in Charleston, the “Rocky Steps” leading to the Philadelphia Museum of Art,” the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and the Lincoln Memorial’s Reflecting Pool in the nation’s capital. In Washington, the bell animation takes up 37,000 square feet and is composed of red, white, and blue ribbons that seem to be unraveling. A soundtrack accompanying the AR features a bell ringing from a lulling sound to something much more urgent. (https://nancybakercahill.com/4th-wall-ar-app)
The appearance of Liberty Bell on the National Mall made me think about how the Mall serves as a platform for all kinds of expression—for national celebrations, for protests, and as a canvas for art.
When George Washington instructed Pierre L’Enfant to design the Federal City in 1791, L’Enfant envisioned a “grand avenue” lined by gardens and stretching from the proposed Capitol to an equestrian statue of George Washington that would be placed south of the President’s House. In 1802, a map described the grand avenue as “the Mall”—a tip-of-the-hat to London’s Mall, where people promenaded fashionably near Buckingham Palace.
America’s Mall had a haphazard look until the 1902 “McMillan Plan” (left). Inspired by the “city beautiful movement” of the late nineteenth century, McMillan extended L’Enfant’s Mall further west and removed a conglomeration of unrelated structures—including greenhouses, a railroad station, and a Central Market—and replaced the clutter with an open expanse of grass lined by four rows of American elm trees. In the 20th and 21st centuries, the Mall has been festooned by Smithsonian museums, the National Gallery of Art, and a growing armada of memorials commemorating iconic national figures (Lincoln, Jefferson, FDR, Martin Luther King), and wars (Korea, Vietnam, World War II).
The Mall is the site for celebrations like presidential inaugurations, Fourth of July fireworks, and the National Cherry Blossom Festival. It has also served as the rallying platform for such major national events as Marian Anderson’s 1939 concert, Dr. King’s March on Washington in 1963, and a major anti-Vietnam protest in 1972.
But the National Mall has also emerged as a stage for creative expression. There are permanent art installations in both the Hirshhorn Museum and National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Gardens, but there have also been several temporary artworks showcased. In 1987, the AIDS Memorial Quilt (left. Photo: Richard Latoff), was displayed in a massive showcase of 2,000 panels created by family and friends of those who had died of AIDS.
In 2012, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden commissioned Doug Aitken to create a video work that illuminated the entire façade of the building, transforming it into “liquid architecture” by using eleven high-definition video projectors that splayed across the museum’s curved exterior. Entitled “SONG 1,” the video was accompanied by an “urban soundscape” that featured the 1934 Harry Warren-Al Dubin song “I Only Have Eyes for You,” originally composed for the Warner Bros. film Dames. The Aitken projection was visible on the Mall from sunset to midnight, March 22 to May 20, 2012.
In October 2014, the National Portrait Gallery contributed the next major work of Mall art. Nik Apostolides, then Associate Director of the Gallery, persuaded Cuban American artist Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada to create one his enormous “facescapes” on the Mall (right). Rodriguez-Gerada photographed 30 anonymous young men of all races and blended them into an enormous composite portrait that stretched over six acres at the base of the Washington Monument. Calling his portrait “Out of Many, One,” the artist required 2,500 tons of sand and 800 tons of topsoil to create a vast face that was viewed from the top of the Washington Monument. He explained, “My art aims to create a dialogue about the concept of identity, and it questions the role models who are chosen to represent us in the public sphere. These works have no negative environmental impact and are created to poetically blend back into the land.”
In July 2019, the National Air & Space Museum celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission by projecting a 363-foot image of the Saturn V rocket onto the Washington Monument (left). On two nights, a 17-minute projection called “Apollo 50: Go for the Moon” recreated the launch of the Apollo 11 mission that took astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the moon.
Sponsored by the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, Nancy Baker Cahill’s Liberty Bell (below, with hands of the artist pictured), continues the idea of using the National Mall as a canvas for artistic expression. Unbound by a museum’s four walls, her AR animation evokes freedom in its identity as ‘virtual.’ Yet the artist has described her intention as conveying the essence of American identity. “What I’m trying to do with this piece,” she has said, “is asking people to consider, ‘What is liberty?’”
It’s a potent question for our times. Will the pandemic affect our ideas about liberty and freedom? A recent New Yorker article by Lawrence Wright (2020 article illustration, below, left) describes how earlier pandemics—notably, the plague that ravaged Fourteenth Century Italy—pointed people to new directions that remarkably led to the Renaissance.
Wright wonders, as we all do, if our “new normal” will lead us to reimagine the old and create something wonderful–or will the worst and most irrational ways of thinking produce cesspools of unreason? He writes, “Like wars and depressions, a pandemic offers an X-ray of society, allowing us to see all the broken places….the racial inequities, the poisonous partisanship, the governmental incompetence, the disrespect for science, the fraying of community bonds.” Wright ends on a hopeful note—“when people confront their failures, they have the opportunity to mend them.” (Lawrence Wright, “How Pandemics Wreak Havoc—And Open Minds,” THE NEW YORKER, July 20, 2020.)
The question is, will we? Are we still “one,” or have we become intractably “many”?
By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer
Liberty Bell will be accessible on all six city sites through July 4, 2021.(more…)