Stories told in stone abound on the National Mall, but a new outdoor exhibition series—aptly titled “Beyond Granite”—seeks to commemorate the narratives that remain missing from the sprawling civic space. Beyond Granite’s inaugural exhibit, entitled “Pulling Together,” includes six temporary art installations that will be on view starting Friday, August 18.
If successful, the free outdoor pilot exhibit—slated to run through September 18—would be the first in a series of “Beyond Granite” exhibitions in the future.
“The pilot will look at how these temporary installations can enhance the dialogue on the Mall,” said Julie Moore, vice president of communications for the Trust for the National Mall. “It’ll be a way to bring new perspectives and new voices to the commemorative landscape.”
With a $4.5 million grant from the Mellon Foundation, the Trust has been working with the Monument Lab, a public art and history studio based in Philadelphia, to curate and create the temporary installations, which are meant to be seen in conversation with the permanent monuments around them, says Moore.
While it’s not the first time that artists have constructed temporary monuments on the Mall—a recent example is the sea of white flags that represented lives lost to Covid-19—it is the the first curated outdoor exhibition in the park’s history, according to the Trust.
“The National Mall is one of the most iconic commemorative spaces in the nation with monuments, memorials, and open spaces,” Moore says. “But it’s also a finite space and is continually in demand for additional storytelling opportunities. … You need to go through an extraordinary amount of work through regulation and funding in order to have permanent coverage on the National Mall, so this is a way for more stories to be told without those barriers to entry.”
Here’s a sneak peek of the six installations, all which seek to answer the question, “What stories remain untold on the National Mall?”
“Of Thee We Sing”
After the Daughters of the American Revolution barred renowned opera singer Marian Anderson from performing at Constitution Hall due to the color of her skin, Anderson courageously sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday in 1939 instead. Educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune later called the performance “a story of pulling together.” In honor of the concert, a statue of Marian Anderson, titled “Of Thee We Sing” and composed of found materials including glass bottles, will stand near the foot of the memorial. Below the statue are archival photos of attendees huddled close together at the historic event. “If you want to see what a reckoning is, what reconciliation is, it’s that story,” the sculpture’s artist, vanessa german, told The Art Newspaper. Based in Pittsburgh, german often creates works that feature powerful female figures and touch upon themes of social healing.
“For the Living”
Adjacent to the Mall’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a sprawling global map installation titled “For the Living” will acknowledge the lives of the millions of people who had to flee to safety in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Colored rope will trace the immigration routes they took, including those to the U.S. where more than 1.2 million Southeast Asian refugees resettled, according to the University of California-Irvine. “It is such a tremendous opportunity and an enormous responsibility to present stories hidden in plain sight right where they will hopefully have the most impact,” said Tiffany Chung, the Vietnamese American artist behind the installation, in a statement. Based in Houston, Chung’s work often touches upon themes of migration and displacement.
“The Soil You See…”
While the signatories of the Declaration of Independence are well studied, lesser known are the names of the Apsáalooke (Crow) nation chiefs who brokered treaties with the U.S. government throughout the 19th century. Using her own fingerprint as a model, artist Wendy Red Star has created a large red thumbprint sculpture, and has strategically positioned it near the 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence Memorial. On the thumbprint’s ridges, you’ll find the names of 50 Apsáalooke chiefs and tribal representatives who signed treaties. Raised on the Apsáalooke reservation in Montana but now based in Portland, Oregon, Red Star often draws upon her cultural heritage when producing photography, sculpture, video, fiber arts, and performance.
Not long after DC’s parks became desegregated, a photographer captured an image of Black and white children playing together at the city’s previously all-white Edgewood Park. Inspired by this archival photo, Brooklyn-based artist Derrick Adams will commemorate desegregation by erecting an interactive jungle gym titled “America’s Playground” that’s colorful on one side and monochromatic on the other.
A mixed media sound installation will serve as an “open air shrine” in honor of the queer Black musicians who fell victim to the AIDS crisis. A professor of religious studies as well as African American and African studies at the University of Virginia, artist Ashon T. Crawley has authored a musical composition featuring three movements—procession, sanctuary, and benediction—that will be played through speakers embedded into the installation. “It will be an occasion, on a large scale and with an international audience, to begin telling the story of musical genius, love and friendship, loss and spiritual abuse through the lives of people often not considered virtuosos because of limited professional training opportunities or lack of opportunities,” said Crawley in a statement.
“Let Freedom Ring”
Artist Paul Ramírez Jonas—who is known for creating works that encourage civic participation—will present an interactive tower of hand-forged bronze bells. The tower will play all of the song “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” except for the final note; the public will be invited to finish the song by ringing the sculpture’s 600-pound bell. Papers with charcoal rubbings from the bell will ask visitors to reflect on what it is they have or would like to have “freedom from…” and “freedom to…”
Correction: This article was updated to clarify the title of Ashon T. Crawley’s installation, which is named “HOMEGOING,” not “America’s Homegoing.”