The newest — and by far the largest — monumental male noggin to hit the crown jewel of Washington, D.C.’s highly trafficked urban park system may not be immediately familiar to visitors. Or perhaps it will, considering that the slightly grinning visage in question, a staggering work of land art commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery and presented in cooperation with the National Park Service and the Trust for the National Mall titled “Out of One, Many,” represents the face of not one but many men.
And whether it rings a bell or not, the profile depicted in the 6-acre-spanning art installation doesn’t really resemble much of anything — aside from an alien landing formation or a bunch of random rows of soil – unless viewed from several hundred in feet in the air, most likely from a plane on approach to Reagan National Airport or from the observation deck of the Washington Monument.
In the creation of this ephemeral artwork situated on the JFK Hockey Fields that flank the south side of the Reflecting Pool, Cuban-American street artist and “culture-jammer” Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada snapped 30 different photographs of young men in Washington, D.C. and digitally merged their faces into a single composite portrait.
As the Smithsonian points out, “the portrait does not feature one recognizable individual, but instead is a composite, highlighting, just as our Founding Fathers did, that from many come one. Rodríguez-Gerada’s goal is to create a dialogue around the ideas of individuality, community, and place.”
Using advanced GPS technology — TopCon high-precision satellite navigation receivers, to be exact — that's normally reserved for precision agriculture, 10,000 wooden pegs, 8 miles of string and an obscene amount of dirt and sand (800 tons and 2,000 tons, respectively) the face depicted in the digital composite portrait slowly began to take shape as a viewable-from-space work of landscape art over the course of several weeks.
Volunteers from a D.C.-based construction company helped to complete the elephantine portrait, a portrait that Caroline Cunnigham, president of the Trust for the National Mall, refers to as a "stunning compilation of American faces" that "reflects the unique composition of the National Mall’s 29 million annual visitors and honors the legacy of diversity that has made this park—and our country—so great." Like the labor needed to create the portrait, the materials used to shape it were largely donated.
“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,” explains Rodríguez-Gerada in his artist statement.
“Out of One, Many” will be viewable until Oct. 31. In early November, the dirt and sand used to create the portrait will be tilled back into the National Mall as part of a turf restoration project leaving the soil in better shape than it was pre-giant portrait (the hockey fields will eventually be converted into soccer pitches).
And while the portrait is best viewed from a passing plane or from the just-reopened Washington Monument to take in its full and impossibly huge glory, it can also be experienced on the ground as a work of interactive art.
“It kind of has a Zen garden feeling as people walk through it and think, ‘Am I by the eye?’ ‘Is this the nostril?’” Rodríguez-Gerada told the Washington Post of his work back in August when the installation was announced. “It’s a different way of trying to find where you are.”
“Out of One, Many” — or “E Pluribus Unum” as the phrase, previously the de facto motto for the United States, is better known to anyone who has ever handled U.S. currency — is the first installation from New Jersey-raised Rodríguez-Gerada’s Terrestrial Series to be created stateside. It's without a doubt the largest portrait the National Portrait gallery has ever commissioned.
Previous works from the series include “Expectation,” a sand and gravel portrait of Barack Obama created on a beach in Barcelona the day before the 2008 U.S. elections; “Mama Cash,” a two football fields-sized portrait of an anonymous Mesoamerican feminist rights activist created in Amsterdam in observance of International Human Rights Day; and a 350.org-curated portrait of a young girl titled “GA-LA” that was created on a Spanish beach in response to the 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico.
"I chose a little girl named Gal·la who lives in the Delta del Ebro and created this icon in her likeness, an icon to symbolize all the reasons for the world to act today," says Rodríguez-Gerada says of his work for 350.org. "Her portrait was constructed using a labyrinth design to allude to the tenacity of the human spirit to find a solution."
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