The National Mall is getting a new face this fall, composed of approximately 2,000 tons of sand, 800 tons of soil, 10,000 wooden pegs and miles of twine.
Six acres of land midway between the World War II and Lincoln memorials will transform into a grand landscape etching by Cuban-American urban artist Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada. The work is a composite portrait, blending the features of 18 to 25-year-old males from a variety of different racial and ethnic backgrounds whom Rodríguez-Gerada photographed on the streets of Washington, D.C.
"It's a good time to contemplate our young men," the artist told CQ Roll Call in a phone call from Spain. "We're born with an identity and a face. It's something we didn't choose, but it affects us for the rest of our life." Gaze out from the top of the Washington Monument or catch an aerial shot of the Mall during the month of October and this composite face — a blend of young men's eyes, lips, cheekbones and nostrils — will stare back at you. The work, presented by the National Portrait Gallery, will have the feel of a zen garden on the ground level, where visitors can walk through the maze of twine, soil and sand, and be visible from outer space.
Rodríguez-Gerada describes his massive project in terms of social sciences and acknowledged a political aspect of the installation.
While abroad, he has been watching the news from Ferguson, Mo., where unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by police. Relating those events to the 2012 shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin in Miami, Fla., Rodríguez-Gerada said now is an important moment to "embrace the diversity of the nation — how this diversity is real, and how it makes the nation great."
Titled “Out of Many, One” — the English translation of "E pluribus unum" — the work also reflects the diversity of his own childhood, growing up the son of Cuban immigrants in New Jersey. Rodríguez-Gerada said the colossal portrait asks people to contemplate "how all our youth perceives living in a melting pot."
Rodríguez-Gerada started making urban art more than 15 years ago, as a founder of the New York Culture Jamming movement. Since the late '90s, he has been replacing the faces of cultural icons chosen by advertisers with the faces of anonymous people. His art is designed to question the controls imposed on public space, the role models designated and the type of events that are guarded by the collective memory.
His urban portraits have been featured in cities around the world including Amsterdam and Belfast. In 2008, he installed a giant portrait of President Barack Obama on a beachfront in Barcelona, Spain. Created prior to the presidential election, "Expectation" alluded to how all the outpouring of hope could fade away like sand.
Working on large scales suits Rodríguez-Gerada. He told CQ Roll Call that he sometimes prefers browsing Google Earth to watching a movie. He sees the "city as canvas" and tries to work only with local materials, leaving no negative environmental impact after the installation.
That commitment to sustainability is consistent with the Trust for the National Mall and National Park Service's shared goal of preserving the Mall for future generations. Both are partnering with the portrait gallery.
"This particular piece of land needs to be re-seeded," explained Caroline Cunningham, president of the trust. At the end of October, the materials will be tilled back into the soil to leave the grounds in better condition than when the project began. Cunningham said the installation is exciting and would help the national park "come to life in new ways for people."
A group of in-kind donors also came together to support the exhibit, including Clark Construction Group, Chaney Enterprises, The Bulldog Group, Alvin Hatcher Group and Topcon, with consulting assistance provided by Terry Stancill.
Construction begins in September, when the etching design will be projected onto the Mall by a satellite and read by GPS topography poles on the ground. Rodríguez-Gerada said that if the Capitol Hill community wants to be part of the piece, they can look for volunteer opportunities through the Trust or NPS.
"It's important for people from the city to come together to make something happen," he said. "If they become part of it, if they want it there, it will really, really work."