The Washington Project for the Arts recently invited two up-and-coming young artists -- Tony Labat from New York and Esther Parada from Chicago -- to come to Washington, look around and react as they might. The results: two provocative and thoughtful installations now on view on the third floor at 400 Seventh St. NW.
Video artist Labat saw a "Fool's Paradise" -- the title of his piece -- in which the seductive look of Washington's monuments masks the real business of power-brokering, with all its accompanying secretiveness and surveillance. He makes his points symbolically and metaphorically in a semidarkened room centered with a large, sculptural obelisk (the truncated top of the Washington Monument), surrounded by dozens of stacked, sealed cartons and changing video images of various historical monuments projected upon the walls.
Inside the obelisk -- viewed through a small window cut into its side -- is a full-size desk with an ashtray and cigar, all being watched by a moving surveillance monitor that projects what it sees onto a wall. Also on the desk is what first appears to be a TV set with a picture of a sylvan waterfall. It turns out to be a bit of contemporary kitsch, a plug-in plastic gewgaw from Bargain Town across the street. A fool's paradise, to be sure.
If you stand still long enough, the artist's point comes through, sort of. The piece also pays unconscious homage to one of Washington's best artists, Ed McGowin, who invented the sculptural form with interior tableau (he calls them "Inscapes"), which Labat -- no doubt unwittingly -- here imitates.
In the next room begins "U.S. Democracy Over Central America," a three-gallery political treatise by Esther Parada, a photographer represented in the Hirshhorn's recent "Content" show.
Once a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia, and now a professor of photography at the University of Illinois, Chicago, Parada obviously came to Washington concerned about the history of American policy toward Central America, but also in search of the "true" facts, which she found in documents from the National Archives, in voting records of various members of Congress, in newspaper reports and on-the-scene photographs.
She has painted a map of the United States on the wall, and a map of Central America on the floor, over which the viewer is forced to walk. Her documents, some bearing contradictory statements, are hung on the walls.
Basically, her piece raises the question: What is the truth, and where can we find it? It also raises the question: Wouldn't a book have served the purpose as well?
Both installations will continue at WPA through March 16.