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GROUNDS FOR DISCUSSION: NONUMENTS SITE AT DC’S 5X5 PROJECTS

Encountering Nonuments, the Lance Fung-curated portion of Washington DC’s monumental 5×5 Projects (Sept-Dec 2014), the casual visitor experiences a sense of disorientation. On one side you have your newly minted steel and glass office building and nearby Safeway, contemplating modernity with an exclamation point. Opposite lie your brick-and-mortar, lovingly worn residences that taper off with a question mark about the future.

Between lies Nonuments.

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Curated by Lance Fung of Fung Collaboratives, the public art site features five artists who individually approach the DC Commision on the Arts & Humanities’ 5×5 Project objectives of building relationships with local residents and creating environments representative of local identity. Building on these precepts, Fung’s stringent dedication to ensuring the community can represent and speak for itself, as well experience not just an art site but also “something valuable,” are crucial to Nonuments’ success. However, this success also lies within a subtle concept; actually, the art site isn’t composed of artworks, per say. Nonuments is comprised of working art. Art literally works at Nonuments. The art builds community ties, incites conversations about the purpose of public art, and encourages interactions between the art installations and a diverse crowd of visitors.

Just how does each individual artist contribute to the site, located at I street and 4th St SW, as a whole? Renowned British Land artist Peter Hutchinson has uniquely divided up the site into functioning segments with his thrown rope piece, Thrown Rope of Trees for Washington D.C.(2014). These 33 diverse tree species are now in the process of being adopted by the community, with neighborhood residents petitioning to keep them. Cameron Hockenson’s eye-catching Migration, a sculptural installation of giant birdhouses, adds a dash of whimsy while remaining firmly rooted in the idea of “migratory” patterns, a parallel you’d be hard-pressed not to relate to the area’s rapid gentrification. Considering the idea of “working art” specifically, however, artists Jennifer Wen Ma, Jonathan Fung, and the mother/daughter team of Nora & Eliza Naranjo Morse all merit a closer look. Their respective work mines the latent potential of celebrating unsung heroes, practicing community activism and engaging bystanders.

Nora and Eliza Naranjo Morse

Jennifer Wen Ma’s Portrait Garden

Jennifer Wen Ma has utilized Chinese ink to portray the likeness of neighborhood resident Alpha Lillstrom, not on a canvas, but directly onto plants at the site. Lillstrom was the winner of a city-wide lottery. She was chosen to tell her story, posing for a portrait that would speak for the neighborhood as a whole. Standing in the midst of these plants, viewers may miss her image at first, unaware of the portrait until they step back to take in the larger pattern of paint coating the ground. Ma devoted her time to transposing the details of her subject’s portrait faithfully to the plant evolves over time, withstanding weather conditions with the same resilience shown by society’s unsung heroes.

Jonathan Fung's Peep, courtesy of the artist

Jonathan Fung’s Peep, courtesy of the artist

Approaching Jonathan Fung’s Peep, one encounters a brightly colored shipping container that holds a more sinister message upon closer inspection. Peering through peepholes, visitors witness hanging alphabet blocks inside that incorporate children’s portraits. The somber images serve both as a symbol of exploitation and commodification, referring to child labor and human trafficking. Circling around to the far side of the container, which remains undecorated and raw, one encounters a less glamorous reality. A persistent humming sound correlates to sewing machines apparently installed within. The hidden suffering and grueling experiences of these children is brought to life in absentia by Fung’s deceptively simple piece.

Nora & Eliza Naranjo Morse, Digging, courtesy Fung Collaboratives, credit:  John Tallery

Nora & Eliza Naranjo Morse, Digging, courtesy Fung Collaboratives, credit: John Talley

The idea of hands-on community involvement is nowhere more evident than in Digging, a performance art installation by Nora and Eliza Naranjo Morse realized with assistance from Alexis Elton. Donning different uniforms daily to reflect the vocations of those living in the neighborhood, the duo shared how the piece has evolved over time. Spending the entire working day outside in the lot digging, the artists have encountered a wide range of reactions spanning from the occasional befuddlement to the now-common empathy of residents asking if they need any water or nourishment. Anecdotes abound with this piece, as their guests’ aloof curiosity was quickly replaced by compassion and conversation. From sharing moments with strangers who asked about their job experiences while commuting to feeling a gradual loss of self that resulted in their need to dress “as themselves” one day, the commitment of the artists has shown through. Their physical commitment to the space is evident, as Eliza spoke about her sweat as a tangible presence at the Nonuments site.

Nonuments is one of five curatorial endeavors, all part of the 5×5 projects initiative exploring the concept of public art in relation to community. The other sites are helmed respectively by curators Shamim M. Momin, Stephanie Sherman, Justine Topfer and A.M. Weaver, who have all contributed to sites around D.C. and added new layers of understanding to this diverse and rapidly changing capital city. 5×5 projects is experiencing its second incarnation and will remain open to the public until December 2014.

 

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