Over the past few summers, the pool at Capitol Skyline—an out-of-the-way, moderately neglected-looking hotel built in the mid-’60s—has become the epicenter of cool, hosting the Brightest Young Things’ summer camp series, the cast of the Real World DC, and Playboy Playmates. This weekend, the pool plays a new part: art canvas.
For its second year in existence, the (e)merge art fair returns to the Capitol Skyline, transforming its conference rooms, parking garage, a couple dozen guest rooms, and, yes, the pool, into galleries featuring the work of 152 up-and-coming artists from 24 countries.
Thursday’s opening-night party featured a mix of twentysomething hipsters, confused hotel guests, and older collectors hoping to grab a bargain before some of these artists blow up. As with most of DC’s internationally tinged things, Thievery Corporation deejay and nightspot maven Eric Hilton was involved—he deejayed for two hours after most of the indoor art spaces shut down. But Hilton wasn’t the focus of the night—most ignored his presence, and he kept things laid-back and lounge-music-y as attendees discussed their favorite pieces. Things never got too dancey, and the energy level never rose above toe-tapping level, maybe because the pool deck offered plenty of space to sit, or maybe because $11 rail drinks discouraged people from getting too liquored up.
The fair, created as DC’s answer to Miami’s Art Basel, feels reminiscent of a classed-up version of last year’s VitaminWater Uncapped: Performance art and the most ambitious installations take up the hotel’s basement parking garage, where you’ll find a filament maze by Melinda Hirt and Emily Biondo, installations featuring relics from DC’s Occupy Wall Street protesters, and works by MICA and Corcoran students.
Things get really interesting upstairs, where 31 guest rooms have been taken over by local and international galleries. The best installations recognize they’re in a hotel room, not the Louvre, and make use of the furniture and layout. One artist stacked twin beds on top of each other “out of necessity” and flipped the lampshade upside down—subtle and easy, but it set a mood some other galleries didn’t try for. Some opted to remove all the furniture, hang photographs or paintings on the walls, flip on the lights, and call it a day. Others turned off the lights in the bathroom, lit candles, and played creepy-as-hell voices. Halloween is coming, right?
The strength of (e)merge is its layout. Sure, the tiny guest rooms and narrow hallways got packed Thursday night, and I felt like I was going to spill my drink on someone at any moment—but if you don’t like an exhibit, there’s another one with a completely different feel right next door. One minute you’re tossing coins into Cheryl Pope’s revolving wishing well of high-sock-covered plastic legs, the next you’re trying to figure out how Dutch photographer Micky Hoogendijk manages to make a teenage girl look so haunting.
The fair’s sprawling setup doesn’t always work—some artists’ works are relegated to the walls of the hotel’s restaurants, where oblivious guests don’t even notice them (though it’s hard to miss the creepy mannequins dressed as rabbits hanging out by the vending machines and in the gym). And it’s hard to take in the full impact of Mandy Cano Villalobos’s moving tribute to missing and exploited Latino girls when it’s sitting right next to a pool that’s no doubt had its fair share of vomit and beer spilled in it.
The lineup of art and artists at (e)merge was put together by curators from the Hirshhorn, Baltimore’s Goya Contemporary, Amsterdam’s Amstel Gallery, and a few other local and international galleries, and it shows. Its rare misses are more than made up for with the fair’s interactivity, the tiny guest rooms that force you close to the art, and the novelty of the setting. You won’t find such a variety of media, styles, and attitudes anywhere else in the city.
The (e)merge art fair runs through October 7 at the Capitol Skyline Hotel. Admission is $15. For more information about the lineup of panel discussions, performances, and other programs, visit (e)merge’s website.