On Our National Mall, New Monuments Tell New Stories

Public. Art. Monument.

Combine those three terms, and you often end up in a glorious muddle.

Whether a sculpture or fountain or obelisk, a piece might succeed as a monument, but fail as fine art; another might please the public, but fail to commemorate; a third might satisfy an art critic, but leave the public yawning.

For just one month, Friday, Aug. 18 through Sept. 18, the National Mall will be hosting “Pulling Together,” an open-air exhibition that tests what works best, or fails least, when artists, publics and monuments are brought together. The curators Paul Farber and Salamishah Tillet have asked six artists — three women and three men; three of them Black, one Asian, one Latino, one Native — to make “prototype monuments” for the west half of the Mall, from 12th Street to the Lincoln Memorial. For the next month, six installations will aim to address some of the stories, and the publics, that have so far been neglected by the Mall’s monument makers.

“Pulling Together” makes room for monuments that talk, for instance, about Black church leaders with AIDS, about the schoolchildren who cut through Washington’s color line, and about Asian migration after America’s war in Vietnam. (One shocking absence: art that addresses the sexism undermining half the world’s humans. Almost as weird: None of the installations speak to our climate disaster.)

The show is planned as the first installment in “Beyond Granite,” a series of temporary public projects led by the Trust for the National Mall with the National Capital Planning Commission and the National Park Service. Farber is a co-founder of Monument Lab, a Philadelphia group that explores public art and was charged with developing “Pulling Together.” Tillet is a professor of African American studies at Rutgers University who is a contributing critic at large for The New York Times. Funding comes from the Mellon Foundation.

The entries that follow chart an east-to-west course across “Pulling Together,” with each installation’s pros and cons. What I found compelling about the whole project is the way a work might succeed on one dimension (maybe by undermining traditional, Guy-on-a-Horse ideas about monumentality) in the very act of failing on another (say, to achieve the visceral power of an old-fashioned monument). These impossible tensions between success and failure may simply be unavoidable in anything called a “public monument.”

That gives “Pulling Together,” as a whole, the flexible meaning we want from good art.

Paul Ramírez Jonas’s “Let Freedom Ring” consists of 32 little bells hanging from an arch overhead, programmed to play all but the last note in the tune to “My Country ’Tis of Thee.”Credit…Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times
Paul Ramírez Jonas with “Let Freedom Ring,” Smithsonian Metro – 12th Street North.Credit…Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

‘Let Freedom Ring’

The Artist: Paul Ramírez Jonas, 58, chair of the art department at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

The Place: On the pebbled avenue at 12th Street, on the north side of the Mall between the Smithsonian’s museums of natural history and American history.

The Piece: “Let Freedom Ring” consists of 32 little bells hanging from an arch overhead, programmed to play all but the last note in the tune to “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.” Below sits another bell, big enough for a church tower, tuned to play that final note. An “animator” hands each visitor a piece of paper and asks them to take a rubbing from a text cast into the bronze on either side of the big bell; one side says “I WANT TO BE FREE FROM _____,” the other “I WANT TO BE FREE TO ____.” After declaring a preferred kind of freedom, each visitor gets to listen to the peal of small bells play its tune, then to pull a lever that rings the missing note on the big bell.

Pros: The carillon has a lovely sound that provides almost the only moment of old-fashioned beauty in “Pulling Together.” In the time it takes for the tune to play out, visitors display a concentration that is rare even in most museums. Some close their eyes, singing the song in their heads so as not to miss their moment of action. It’s only a 30-second span, but it’s a long moment of peace among today’s distractions. While the bells have a ceremonial quality that seems particularly suited to the ceremonial aura of the Mall, the work also subverts any facile patriotism: Its tune first came with the lyrics from “God Save the King,” the British anthem. So a piece that seems to recall 1776 and the Liberty Bell might also be commemorating that royalist “tyrant,” King George III. Also adding to the work’s heft: The big bell, tuned two octaves below the bells overhead, seems less in tune with them than in tension. It seems to sound a dark warning, like the tolling of a bell on a lighthouse, after the jingle of smaller bells left us too complacent.

Cons: The rigmarole of being asked to choose a text, make a rubbing from it and then name a preferred brand of freedom, all before being allowed to sound the big bell, is gilding the lily. And for a piece that’s supposed to be about freedom, the artist seems to assert an almost dictatorial (or maybe royally Georgian) control over how we use and enjoy it. (On site, Ramírez Jonas said he might yet change the instructions, depending upon public reaction.)

Ashon T. Crawley, creator of a sound art memorial called “Homegoing.” It features speakers that play texts and music about the Black church and AIDS. Credit…Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times


The Artist: Ashon T. Crawley, a 43-year-old musician and writer from Richmond, Va. He is also an associate professor of Religious Studies and African American and African Studies at the University of Virginia.

The Place: Just south of the Washington Monument.

The Piece: “Homegoing” is a series of platforms or small stages spread across a large field of grass. Speakers hidden below them play a three-part composition by Crawley. One “movement” includes Crawley reciting the names of AIDS victims. The two others combine texts written by Crawley and sounds from Black churches and culture. The result, he says, is “an audiovisual memorial to queer musicians, choir directors and songs from Black church contexts — often closeted, the fullness of their stories still untold.”

Pros: Not since 1987, when a team of volunteers first unfolded the AIDS Memorial Quilt, has the Mall seen a monument to the persecution and neglect of gay Americans. As a work of sound art — Crawley’s platforms seem to merely frame his recordings, like gilded moldings around an old master canvas — “Homegoing” is the ultimate antidote to the imposing thing-ness of most monuments. Sound art is light on the ground where granite and bronze can land with a thud. The low-lying installation seems to mock the Washington Monument’s almost phallic presence. “Homegoing” also invites, even demands, an unusual focus as listeners try to make out what they’re hearing. That’s a fine antidote to the quick, superficial read that traditional monuments are likely to get.

Cons: Compared with work that has a powerful visual presence — that monument to Washington, for instance — sound can easily fade into the background in a busy place like the Mall. And if that leaves “Homegoing” without the focused reception it needs, we come to depend on nearby texts that explain it. The piece can become more about the content that Crawley wants to transmit than any content we might receive — more about his intentions than our reactions.

Derrick Adams, “America’s Playground,” a temporary monument that commemorates a moment in 1954 when the Supreme Court ordered Washington’s playgrounds desegregated.Credit…Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

‘America’s Playground’

The Artist: Derrick Adams, 53, is a well-known creative figure across media based in Brooklyn.

The Place: In Constitution Gardens, north of the World War II Memorial.

The Piece: “America’s Playground” is just that — a large playground, with climbing frames. Its play space is divided into two by a large wall covered in a vast reproduction of a 1954 photo of Black and white children playing on one of Washington’s playgrounds, only days after the Supreme Court ordered them desegregated. On one side of Adams’s wall, the playground is painted in bright colors; on the other it is all in shades of gray; an arch in the wall allows access between the two halves.

Pros: It’s wonderful to see art that does double duty as something truly usable. Adams returns the Mall’s children, at least, to a moment before 1500, when Europeans used an art work for its obvious function, rather than endlessly pondering what art might do. Kids will love having a place to play on an unplayful site like the Mall. The great Washington Monument that soars nearby, not to mention the World War II Memorial down the way, seem almost inert compared with the life and energy of this little playground. This is monumental art with zero pomposity.

In a decade spent in D.C., I found the Mall to be one of the less segregated spaces in the city, but even side-by-side Black and white families tended not to mix. Their kids will, once they come to this playground. That means there’s a lovely, rare balance between what this piece does and the image it bears — like the painting of an ironing board that could also work as one.

Cons (just quibbles, in this case): By virtue of being so unmonumental, Adams’s playground seems barely in conversation with the granite and bronze elsewhere on the Mall, so it can’t quite question them.

The brightly colored side of the playground could be read as celebrating a desegregation that has never been complete. America’s playgrounds won’t be fully desegregated until its neighborhoods — and its wealth — are also shared among races.

Wendy Red Star with “The Soil You See …,” a temporary monument bearing her fingerprint, with the names of 50 Native leaders who once signed treaties with the federal government.Credit…Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

‘The Soil You See …’

The Artist: Wendy Red Star, 42, an Apsáalooke (Crow) Native in Portland, Ore., whose works in sculpture, video, photography and performance engage with her heritage.

The Place: An island on the pond in Constitution Gardens that is also home to the Memorial to the 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence.

The Piece: “The Soil You See …” consists of Red Star’s fingerprint printed in red onto a cast glass oval about the height of a human body. It stands upright in an 8,000 pound lump of granite. A text runs within the whorls of the fingerprint. It includes a powerful statement from an Apsáalooke scout who confronted Congress over land rights in 1912. It also features the names of 50 Native leaders who once signed treaties with an “X.” (Others apparently had used their thumbprints.)

Pros: There’s a potent tension with the nearby monument to the Signers, which comes off as self-important and deeply complacent thanks to Red Star’s intervention.

As a quite traditional commemorative object, Red Star’s piece confronts a history of similar works that have simply ignored her Native subject matter, and thereby almost erased it.

When you approach close enough to read Red Star’s text, the Washington Monument pokes up in the distance. It seems small, almost insignificant next to Red Star’s blood-red fingerprint. With its human scale and idyllic island setting, Red Star’s monument is ready-made for Instagram, unlike most of the other installations in “Pulling Together.”

Cons: As a traditional commemorative object, “The Soil You See …” doesn’t question that kind of object-based commemoration. The little piece, tucked away on an island few ever visit, might have to be content with the power it can wield on social media.

Tiffany Chung with her installation “For the Living” on the National Mall. Nylon ropes trace the migration routes of Southeast Asians as they move across the world.Credit…Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

‘For the Living’

The Artist: Tiffany Chung, 54, was born in Vietnam and is now based in Houston.

The Place: In Constitution Gardens, just east of the Vietnam Memorial near the north side of the Mall.

The Piece: “For the Living” covers a big stretch of lawn with a world map drawn in black plastic edging, like the kind used around garden beds. Blue nylon ropes trace the sea routes of Asian migrants. Orange ropes map their departures by land, and yellow ones register flights.

Pros: A monument to “the global routes of Southeast Asian immigrants,” it also seems to speak to the massive migration from South to North now caused by climate change. The piece seems designed to be vulnerable to interference — a vulnerability that few monuments dare to explore, but is basic to the lives of migrants. “For the Living” dares to be recumbent and modest, where most monuments stand up and blare out their message.

Cons: A low fence tells viewers to stay off Chung’s map. That is a necessary protection but it leaves the piece more remote and passive than it should be.

Since the information in its maps would be most intelligible from overhead, it may be missed by most viewers. The installation’s skein of lines might thus be read as mere abstraction, like a Jackson Pollock on the grass.

Vanessa German’s monument to Marian Anderson, capped in bottles made from blue glass, sits on a base covered in photos of the audience from the singer’s landmark performance in 1939 — one of the Mall’s most important symbolic moments.Credit…Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times
Vanessa German with her work, “Of Thee We Sing,” at the steps to the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C.Credit…Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

‘Of Thee We Sing’

The Artist: Vanessa German, 47, based in Pittsburgh and Asheville, N.C.

The Place: By the steps to the Lincoln Memorial.

The Piece: “Of Thee We Sing” is a stylized statue of the great Black contralto Marian Anderson, dressed in bottles made from blue glass. It sits on a base covered in photos of the audience from Anderson’s landmark performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, when 75,000 people got to hear her sing, after she was denied the opportunity to perform at Constitution Hall because of her race. Plastic flowers that mimic Namibian lilies rise at the singer’s feet, amid upraised human arms cut from aluminum.

Pros: German’s monument to Anderson nods to one of the Mall’s most important symbolic moments, which otherwise goes unmarked on the site. Compared with the Lincoln Memorial, massive and marble, the piece seems terrifyingly slight and fragile. That might speak to the fragility of Black life in America.

Cons: The Black woman in German’s piece simply cannot compete, visually — and therefore symbolically — with the giant white man on his seat above and behind her. And by adding so many allegorical elements to its image of Anderson — bottles, lilies, hands and more — “Of Thee We Sing” implies that the singer needs all that to signify. A simpler image of her might better capture the simple, powerful presence she had that day when she sang.

Pulling Together

Friday through Sept. 18 on the National Mall;

Back to top button