National Portrait Gallery installation will transform tons of sand and soil on the Mall


In October, the view from inside the Washington Monument — looking the other direction, toward the Lincoln Memorial — will feature an art installation. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
August 19

Come October, the view from the top of the Washington Monument is going to be staring back at you.

From the ground, the National Portrait Gallery’s art installment on the Mall will look like nothing more than rows of dirt and sand. But from on high, the lines and patterns will come together to create the image of a face.

The “facescape” will take over a 10-by-6-acre area on the Mall, between the World War II and Lincoln memorials. It will be created by Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada, a Cuban American portrait artist who uses buildings, billboards, fields and beaches as his canvas. The Portrait Gallery announced the commissioned project Tuesday.

Starting in September, Rodríguez-Gerada will begin constructing the landscape portrait using GPS technology to determine where to place wooden pegs that will become a guideline for the face. Then, with the help of construction companies, he will place 2,000 tons of sand and 800 tons of soil in the exact spots needed to achieve the intended effect when viewed from above.

When it is completed, visitors will be able to see the face from the top of the monument or stroll through it on the Mall.


Cuban American portrait artist Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada in front of his “Emma Barcelona” mural (2006). (Ana Álvarez-Errecalde)

“It kind of has a Zen garden feeling as people walk through it and think, ‘Am I by the eye?’ ‘Is this the nostril?’ ” Rodríguez-Gerada said Monday evening from Spain. “It’s a different way of trying to find where you are.”

In keeping with Rodríguez-Gerada’s mission to work in harmony with the environment, the soil and sand will be tilled into the ground in November as a part of the National Park Service’s turf restoration.

The 48-year-old artist rose to prominence in the 1990s, when he began illicitly replacing the iconic faces on billboards with the faces of regular people. These days, he is commissioned to create his work, including similar facescape projects in Amsterdam, Northern Ireland and Spain. In Barcelona, the face he created — unveiled the day before the 2008 U.S. presidential election — depicted Barack Obama. Constructed on a Spanish beach, the piece represented “how all the outpouring hope could fade away like sand,” Rodríguez-Gerada said on his Web site. Instead of naming it “Hope” in reference to the Obama campaign’s slogan, the artist, who grew up in New Jersey, named the piece “Expectation.”

For his first facescape in the United States, Rodríguez-Gerada will not create the face of a historical figure or celebrity. Instead, he photographed young men on the Mall and created a composite image inspired by their faces. The idea is reflected in the project’s name: “Out of Many, One.”

It’s a phrase most people are more familiar with in Latin: “E Pluribus Unum.”

“It epitomizes the spirit of America,” said Portrait Gallery Director Kim Sajet. “Each individual makes a difference, and combined, we make up this amazing country. We’re celebrating what makes this place great.”

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