The Ripple Effect: Currents of Socially Engaged Art

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Editorial Review

Artists go beyond the gallery walls
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, November 2, 2012

If art is only what you can see, then “The Ripple Effect” isn’t much of an art show. The group exhibition at the Art Museum of the Americas -- a collaboration between the museum and the Washington Project for the Arts -- provides more food for thought than eye candy.

But if, as the show’s title suggests, art isn’t just the pebble thrown into the pond but the way it disturbs the water’s surface, then this show is a fine and far-reaching one.

Smartly organized around the theme of social engagement by independent curator Raquel de Anda, “The Ripple Effect” includes video, sculpture, photography, digital media and installation, but its roots are in performance and subversive action. What you see in the gallery is often merely documentation of something that happened elsewhere, the effects of which may still be reverberating, in ways that can be felt more than seen.

A good example of this is Mark Strandquist’s “Write Home Soon.” It began as a series of photographs of encampments abandoned by “Occupy” protesters. But that’s not what you’ll see here. His contribution to “The Ripple Effect” is a wall of handmade postcards, each sent anonymously by people who had seen the artist’s earlier photos when they were temporarily installed on the facades of abandoned D.C. buildings.

These postcards, many of which are heartbreakingly poignant, respond to a prompt: “Have you ever lost access to a place that was important to you? Please include a memory or story from that space.” Although seemingly meant as a commentary on housing access and homelessness, the work moves in unexpected ways. One writer refers not to a physical place but to the loss of “my father’s arms.”

Another piece, “The Mask of the Shoe Shiner,” documents something happening a long way away, but it feels close to home.

The piece, by the Bolivia-based Aschoy Collective, revolves around a public action in La Paz in which a masked performer went through the streets, accompanied by musicians. Designed to call attention to the condition of about 2,000 shoeshiners -- many of whom wear ski masks to hide that they are professionals brought low by the economy -- the installation is powerful.

Although it includes photography, sculpture and custom-made wallpaper, “Shoe Shiner” centers on a single, richly embroidered, almost sculptural mask. It’s a rich, two-sided metaphor, not just for the hidden underclass but for the invisible barriers that those on the other end of the social spectrum put up in order to feel less uncomfortable about glaring inequality.

Other, more traditionally object-based works include “Palas por Pistolas,” an array of shovels made from 1,527 guns collected in Mexico City. Conceived by artist Pedro Reyes, the project isn’t much to look at, but it includes this longer-lasting effect: The 1,527 shovels ultimately will be used to plant 1,527 trees, including one on the grounds of the museum on Dec. 4.

Certain works in “The Ripple Effect” struggle with the line between subtlety and obviousness. Lina Vargas de la Hoz’s “Umbrella_Relocation,” for instance, is a collapsible mini-tent made out of an umbrella (and carried like one). Although it’s an ingenious design, its point about homelessness seems an easy one.

Then there’s the Ghana Think Tank’s “Legal Waiting Zone Signs.” Although the signs look like no-loitering notices, they really announce the opposite -- that it’s perfectly fine for people, including immigrants -- to hang out on whatever street corner they wish. Two are displayed in the show, and there are plans for two more to be installed in Columbia Heights. I can’t help but wonder, however, if they’ll just get lost in the forest of signage in that neighborhood.

For the most part, though, the messages of “The Ripple Effect” come through loud and clear, leaving echoes in your head long after you’ve left the building.

The story behind the work
By Michael O’Sullivan
Friday, November 2, 2012

n the heavily conceptual jungle of “The Ripple Effect,” the most purely beautiful art is made from garbage. Olivier Giron’s “Something out of Nothing” features a series of hanging, terrarium-like sculptures made from trash that the artist scavenged from illegal dump sites in Fairfax County. One features a pair of doll’s hands half-buried in the dirt in a position of supplication, along with an old shoe and a profusion of weeds.

Trained as a photographer, Giron uploads pictures of illegal dump sites to the environmentally activist Web site www.letsdoitvirginia.org. “The Ripple Effect” also includes video footage that the artist collected at the dump sites, using the kind of motion-activated surveillance cameras that hunters use. In the videos, Giron can be seen fabricating site-specific outdoor sculptures, using materials left behind by dumpers. In some, you also can see the reaction of the violators -- which ranges from curiosity to confusion -- when they stumble on Giron’s art.

According to Giron, his target audience isn’t museum visitors or environmentalists, but the people tossing the trash. Although he “signs” his work by leaving cards containing his contact information, Giron says he has yet to hear from anyone.