America is a patchwork of blue states and red, of purple mountains and amber waves of grain, of George Washington and ... Lady Gaga?
That last cultural dichotomy is just a small piece of artist David Datuna’s multifaceted vision of our diverse nation. On short-term display from Saturday to Monday as part of the National Portrait Gallery’s Presidents' Day programming, the New York-based Datuna's American flag-shaped "Portrait of America" is the first in a projected series of interactive sculptures, utilizing Google Glass technology, that the artist calls "Viewpoint of Billions." Visitors to the museum will not only have the opportunity to observe the piece — a 12-foot American flag sculpture containing numerous portraits of both historical figures and pop icons — like a conventional art object, but, if they choose, to also engage with it using Google's high-tech specs.
Here's how it works: You opt in to the interactive part of Datuna's installation by picking up one of several pairs of Google Glass eyewear available in the gallery. Using software designed by BrickSimple, a maker of wearable computing applications, the glasses activate a series of short videos that invite viewers to respond to questions about the nature of democracy and power. If you chose to participate, your response will be videotaped by one of 10 cameras hidden in the flag, and later archived on Datuna's Web site.
So what, exactly, is "Portrait of America" about? According to Datuna, who was born in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, the work is an attempt to express his admittedly complicated feelings about his adopted country. Datuna says that it's hard to sum up, in a few words, exactly why he believes that the U.S. is the "greatest country in the world," but that its greatness derives not just from the principles of its Founding Founders, but from how those principles manifest themselves in the work of such visionaries as Steve Jobs and, yes, Lady Gaga.
Both of them are depicted in the piece, along with presidents Washington and Lincoln. Like much of Datuna's earlier art, the flag sculpture, which the artist likens to a "living organism," is covered with a lattice of prescription lenses that either magnify or shrink the portraits in it.
It was the museum's associate director, Nik Apostolides, who invited Datuna to show his work after hearing about the piece during last December's Miami art fairs, where the sculpture debuted. A subsequent visit to Datuna's Brooklyn studio convinced Apostolides that the art was not just technically cool, but also contained a lot of what Apostolides calls "soul."
According to Apostolides, that's exactly the combination of old and new that the Portrait Gallery, which lately has been venturing deeper and deeper into multimedia portraiture, is looking for. "We want to take the 'A' from 'art,'" he says, "and put it into STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics], making STEAM."