Ding Ren, who finds art where others might not, displays her work at Montpelier

Ding Ren shows us what's hidden under our noses. In
Ding Ren shows us what's hidden under our noses. In "Window Intervention III," she lists things that can be seen through a window clouded by condensation. (From Ding Ren)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 23, 2010

All through grad school, there was a running joke about Ding Ren, who received her MFA from George Washington University last year and is already one of the area's most watchable young artists.

"The joke was that my art was just about observing, about pointing things out to other people," says the 26-year-old conceptualist, whose second solo exhibition, "Observations and Interventions," is on view at Montpelier Arts Center. Not that there's anything wrong with that. The show is mainly about paying attention. To understand her work, a gallery handout tells us, "the viewer must look carefully and might have to extend his or her notion of what art is."


To get this stuff, you have to be open to looking at art that is, in a word, hidden. The artist's job? To show us what's right under our noses.

"I don't make a distinction between where art begins and where it ends. My life is a continuous place for art to exist," she says.

Here's what that means: a gallery window that has been partially covered with pieces of paper cut into the shape of brown patches in the grass below. A second window that itemizes -- in little press-on letters stuck to the glass -- everything that can be seen in the narrow space between the window's frame and a patch of milky condensation that has formed inside its double-paned glass. The list reads, in part, "rock, sidewalk, sky, trees."

Ren is big on lists. Another work features two of the artist's shopping lists -- one for Target, one for Trader Joe's -- alongside two other lists the artist found at those stores. It's kind of weird. What are the odds you'd set out for the store with your own lavender Post-it note in hand, only to find someone else's yellow one? Not once, but twice? With Ren, this kind of thing happens all the time.

There's no deeper meaning, just observations.

Another series of images features scanned pages from a library book the artist stumbled on, with photographs from Robert Mapplethorpe's "X" portfolio (those are the dirty ones) obscured by paper and tape. Elsewhere, a series of photographs documents a chalkboard with philosophers' names written on it: Foucault, Baudrillard/Virilio and a misspelled Nietzsche. Ren thought they sounded kind of random, she says, so she made her own random additions -- Derrida, Heidegger, Marcuse -- each time mimicking the anonymous handwriting.

That's an example of something that straddles the line between observation -- hey, looky here! -- and intervention, which Ren defines as "a performance in which I disrupt a space physically or a social situation by interacting with people in their day-to-day activity." An example of the latter: "Asian Tourist Performance." It features photos of Ren (who was born in China but grew up in Montgomery County) taking pictures of Asian visitors, using their cameras, at various Washington sites. The project's alternate title: "I am Asian so I am going to make a piece about being Asian."

That's the other thing. There's a surprising amount of humor here. It's subtle, but you'll find it.

It may not be the only thing you find. Don't be surprised if you come out of the show with your senses recalibrated. It happened to me. When I returned to one of Ren's window pieces for a last look before leaving the gallery, I spotted a small beetle, about the size of a dime, sitting on the sill. It hadn't been there before.

Or maybe it had, and I just hadn't noticed.

Ding Ren: "Observations and Interventions" Through May 23 at Montpelier Arts Center, 9652 Muirkirk Rd., Laurel. 301-377-7800 or 410-792-0664 (TTY: 301-490-2329). http://www.pgparks.com/Things_To_Do/Arts/Montpelier_Arts_Center.htm. Hours: Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: Free. Public program: On May 1 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., inside the center and on the grounds, there will be a free festival featuring teas, food and arts of India.

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