Home Arts Monuments to Untold Stories Arrive at the National Mall in Washington, DC

Monuments to Untold Stories Arrive at the National Mall in Washington, DC

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Visitors descending on the National Mall in Washington, DC, later this summer will encounter several new works of art that engage with unrecognized United States stories in the marbled monuments that surround them. Made by artists such as Wendy Red Star, vanessa german and Derrick Adams, the six contemporary installations are part of pulling togetheran exhibit organized by the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Monuments Laboratory intended to raise questions about public memory, historical documents and the role of civic spaces.

Opened Aug. 18, the month-long exhibit will place artwork across the two-mile Mall, the nation’s most-visited national park. At one end, near the bustling Smithsonian subway station, will stand the Paul Ramírez Jonas Museum let freedom ring (2023), an arched bell tower that visitors can play. At the other end, near Lincoln Memorial Plaza, will be a statue of vanessa german’s famous contralto Marian Anderson. Scattered between the two will be a memorial to the AIDS crisis by Ashon T. Crawley; a monument to the Chiefs of the Apsáalooke Nation by Wendy Red Star; an interactive playground by Derrick Adams that reflects on desegregation; and an oversized map by Tiffany Chung that pays tribute to the travels of Southeast Asian immigrants, which will sit next to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Each installation represents an artist’s response to the project’s central prompt: “What stories remain untold on the National Mall?” The question of commemorated stories is one that underpins the work of Monument Lab, which aims to facilitate dialogue about the meaning and future of inherited symbols in the midst of polarizing debates on public monuments in the USA.

Rendering by Paul Ramirez Jonas let freedom ring (2023) Courtesy of the artist, Monument Lab

“​Our hope is that incentive and the exhibition pushes for a better understanding of what monuments can be – beyond granite and not always bronze, and also reveals what is missing and what is already made visible on a space as dynamic and diverse as the National Mall,” say co-curators Paul Farber and Salamishah Tillet.

They add: “The twin themes that many of these artists explore, such as absence and presence; exclusion and inclusion; and displacement and belonging, are not only important to our mall conversations, but shape many public spaces and private conversations across the country today.

An essential source of inspiration for pulling together is Marian Anderson’s 1939 Easter concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a momentous occasion that drew a crowd of around 75,000 but which, to this day, has no historical marker at the site. Anderson, a black classical singer, had been barred from performing at Constitution Hall because of her race; she instead sang outdoors in front of an embedded audience.

For his contribution, German, who grew up with a mother devoted to black opera singers and remembers watching Anderson on public television, chose to tell this story entirely through his sculpture. Title Of you we sing (2023), it depicts a singing Anderson made of found glass bottles, surrounded by flowers and arms raised. Below her is a cutout of a stock photograph of the crowd, positioned to gaze out at the viewers of the sculpture. “The images of the Easter Sunday concert crowd are fascinating,” says the German. “You’d see a little black boy in a flat cap next to an older white man with a tanned face who looks like he just came from american gothic, crammed in next to two black women wearing Sunday church hats, crammed in next to a fat old black man who looks like he’s doing the best he can to stay upright, crammed in next to three white women and their children. It was really a picture of America so close and focused –concentrate on this black figure and on his song.

She adds, “For me, the missing story was a love story, the common thread of human technology. This concert, if you want to see what a settling of accounts is, what reconciliation is, it’s this story.

pulling together is the pilot exhibition of a program run by the Trust for the National Mall that reconsiders the historicized landscape of the vast park through art. A philanthropic partner of the National Park Service, the Trust has invited Monument Lab to nominate a list of artists who have dedicated themselves to topics including civic participation, democracy and dissent; six were ultimately chosen, with their concepts reviewed by an advisory board and federal officials.

Rendering of Wendy Red Star The ground you see… (2023) Courtesy of the artist, Monument Lab

Notably, the program, dubbed Beyond Granite, is taking place as plans for a new memorial on the National Mall dedicated to the Global War on Terror advance. Last week, the foundation leading this project announcement that he chose Marlon Blacwell Architects to design the privately funded memorial.

THE pulling together the exhibition will be that of the National Mall first outdoor exhibition organized in its history. Given the importance of the site, the organizers are stepping up educational efforts to put the works into context. Over 30 local artist educators and animators will be stationed around the mall to answer questions and invite visitors to share their own responses to the works.

Quoting the recent racist vandalism of Tschabalala Self’s sculpture of a black woman in England, the German said she was “a bit scared” by the fate of her work, adding: “I am aware of how the black body in today’s public spaces is assaulted in different ways.” But she noted that the curators have planned what she calls “complete museumification” of the space, with full security throughout the day. “It’s a matter of public trust, isn’t it? For me, work is always about what is most loving. Can this institution be loving? Can this be a space of love? Is there room for love on the National Mall?

To broaden the conversation beyond the nation’s capital site, Monument Lab is in the process of arranging for the works to be picked up elsewhere after the exhibition closes on September 18. The German’s sculpture already has a confirmed next stop after the Lincoln Memorial, at Frick Pittsburgh, as does Wendy Red Star’s The ground you see… (2023), at the Tippet Rise Art Center in Stillwater County, Montana.

“The intentions, hopes and visions of all these artists keep us looking forward while looking back and give us new opportunities to courageously and creatively confront our living histories,” Farber and Tillet say.

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