Arts Beat

D.C. an Unwilling Canvas For His Works of Protest

New York artist Ethan Shoshan had a tough time in Washington with his camouflage-striped flag and
New York artist Ethan Shoshan had a tough time in Washington with his camouflage-striped flag and "Paper Bombs" -- multicolored origami cubes. (By Jonathan Padget -- The Washington Post)
By Jonathan Padget
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 10, 2005

He came here last week with ideals and dreams -- sort of a "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" for the 21st-century artist-activist set. Ethan Shoshan, a 25-year-old New Yorker, makes small, multicolored origami cubes -- he calls them "Paper Bombs" -- and places them in public spaces. He also travels with a 6-by-10-foot handmade U.S. flag, with camouflage where the white stripes would be.

Shoshan would hang the flag on the downtown hotel hosting a major academic conference about American studies, right?

Uh, no.

How about a "Paper Bombs" performance in the hub of the hotel's conference center?

Don't think so.

Maybe he'll just swing by the National Museum of American History and put a few of the cubes on the floor so they spell out "war."

Security is not happy.

"I like putting art where it's not expected," says Shoshan, scruffy and waifish and swimming in a flannel shirt, pushing back his long hair as he woefully recounts his Washington experience. "People are, like, 'Of course you're going to get harassed.' But why is that? Why can't there be an open dialogue about these issues?"

American military force -- the issue that dominates Shoshan's art -- seemed to be a perfect fit for the annual conference of the American Studies Association, a group devoted to analyzing American culture and its worldwide impact. About 2,000 professors, students and others gathered Thursday through Sunday at the Renaissance Hotel near the Convention Center.

The conference, called "Groundwork: Space and Place in American Culture," featured sessions with themes including "Reality TV: Reframing Televisual Space," "Homosexuals in Unexpected Places?" and -- deep breath -- "Sites of Suffering: Bodies in Pain, Passions of Place, Rhetorics of Redemption."

The association accepted Shoshan's proposal to present his art during the conference, which Shoshan planned to use as an occasion for impromptu "Paper Bombs" performances throughout the area. He arrived a couple of days early, and by the time the conference opened, he had visited sites that included Arlington National Cemetery, the Washington Monument, the White House and the Office of Thrift Supervision -- placing as many as 50 of the origami cubes in various configurations (atop cemetery headstones, for example, or lined alongside the White House fence) and photographing them before being prompted by security personnel to pick up the paper trail and move along.

Shoshan's art -- he's performed in Atlanta, Chicago, Oahu, Hawaii, and Cologne, Germany -- sometimes includes placing coins inside the origami constructions. He sees a figurative meaning -- putting money into bombs (but the coins also keep his art from blowing away).

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