The enormous face emerging on the Mall in Washington is laid out on six acres of open space next to the Reflecting Pool and just west of the National World War II Memorial. Although workers were still constructing the image last week, using dark potting soil on a background of lighter-colored sand, an eye and the nose and chin of a young man were already clearly visible from high in the Washington Monument.
From ground level, Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada’s “Out of Many, One” looks like an eccentric landscaping project; but from the windows of the obelisk, more than 500 feet above the Mall, the work reveals an attractive young man in three-quarter profile, seeming to stare through a large gap formed by trees. Even from that height, he gives the uncanny impression of looking straight at you.
The face is a composite of dozens of photographs the Cuban American artist took in Washington, hence the double meaning of the title, “Out of Many, One.” The beauty of the face seems to have a lot to do with its composite derivation, capturing a suggestive mix of ethnic and racial hybridity. But the phrase, in Latin, is also familiar from our national currency, and the construction of the image, in two sharply contrasting tones, looks a lot like the engravings used on our bank notes.
It also introduces an intriguing sense of scarcity into public space: The number of people who will see the portrait will be strictly controlled by the usual complexity of ascending the Washington Monument. Art is often the domain of the privileged, but here, the “lucky few” — those who make it “to the top” — will not be the wealthy but those who manage to score the free admission tickets for access to the monument.
Rodríguez-Gerada has done similar projects in other cities, beginning with an enormous face of Barack Obama in Barcelona, Spain, in 2008. The Washington iteration of the series was spearheaded by the National Portrait Gallery as part of a dual effort to break out of the confinement of traditional museum space and explore the boundaries of portraiture. The image on the Mall will remain there for about a month, slowly fading as weather erodes the design.
Like large-scale primitive sculptures, or geoglyphs, the image plays with our sense of perspective and scale; but it also subtly changes our perception of the Washington Monument, turning a familiar landmark — one that no proper Washingtonian ever visits — into a new destination. And like a mandala, the portrait is designed to be ephemeral. One thinks of an old saying about our economy: “Too big to fail.” But this is big, and designed inherently to fail, or at least disappear. There is whimsy in the portrait’s mix of monumentality and transience.
The real miracle of it, however, is that it happened at all. In all of Washington’s bureaucratically encumbered landscape, no site is more complicated and contested than the Mall. But David Ward, senior historian at the National Portrait Gallery, says the project came together in a few months. Much of the labor was volunteer, and Clark Construction, among others, donated materials and services.
On a rainy, windy day last week, Ward was almost giddy. It is art, he says, that simply makes him happy.