The Human Mirror

By Eileen Rivers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 3, 2005


Miles Hawthorne scoots forward on a small stool and moves his face side to side before he snaps his picture. At the black console on the second floor of the American Visionary Art Museum, he tries to align his face with a grid that stares back at him from behind the glass-enclosed front of the machine, which looks like a minimalist version of a mall photo booth.

He clicks a mouse and a screen shows a grainy black-and-white picture of the 30-year-old student, who has olive skin, a long, rounded nose, large eyes and a full mouth.

Within seconds, the machine morphs his image, projecting color photos of how Hawthorne, who considers himself white, would look if he were Asian, black, Hispanic, East Indian and Middle Eastern. Hawthorne, a fine-arts major at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, W.Va., says he sees a bit of himself in each picture.

That's exactly what SoHo artist Nancy Burson was going for.

"The Human Race Machine," created by Burson in 2000 for London's Millennium Dome, is at the museum through September as part of an exhibit titled "Gender, Race and Class Do Not Equal Character," which features works by local and national artists that explore perceptions of race, gender and class and their effects on social behavior.

The exhibit, which opened in October, has been popular, said Pete Hilsee, the museum's director of communications. And Burson's work has been one of its biggest draws.

The machine, the artist said, is based on one philosophy: that the similarities between people of various races far outweigh the differences. To Burson, who is white, there aren't different races, just one -- the human race, she said. The best way to show that, she thought, would be to give people the chance to manipulate their ethnicity and see themselves differently, even if only momentarily.

"It's really interesting to step into somebody else's shoes," said Burson, 57. "It really gives you the experience, even if for a few seconds, to see who you could have been.

"Somebody [recently] said to me, 'There's no gene for race.' And I said: 'What? Why don't we know that? Why isn't this information out there?' I thought the information was so huge and I still do, and I don't think people understand that."

Hawthorne -- who said he has a varied ethnic background that "often confuses people who try to categorize me by race" -- said he had been waiting to glimpse the piece since he read about it two years ago.

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