It was my first time in DC.
The bus trip from Corning took over nine hours, passing through hill and dale, woods and large swaths of green fields, over rivers, through towns and cities, arriving, after nine hours, at Union Station. It was seven thirty PM.
Union Station is an impressive building with high segmented arches – echoing feet and constant movement giving the impression of a bee hive.
I spilled out onto the street with my backpack and suitcase, hailing a cab to take me to the HighRoad Hostel in Adams Morgan.
The HighRoad Hostel is ideally located, on 18th street, in the middle of all the restaurants, pubs and esoteric shops in Adams Morgan. What a great place to stay! Friendly and helpful staff, clean, with breakfast included. I shared the room with five other travellers, bunk beds all around.
Dupont Circle is the closest Metro station from where, after a short walk past the pretties brick row-houses, you catch a red-line train into town.
I specifically went to Washington DC to meet up with Tim Tate. Tim is the co-founder and co-director of the Washington Glass School. We have been Facebook friends for ages and it was a treat to actually meet face to face!
Tim just returned from Venice. He showed me images of the mind-blowing opening ceremony at Glasstress, a collaboration between artists from all disciples and glass maestros crating art in glass. This is a spectacular official collateral event of the Biennale di Venezia, extending the borders of creative glass within contemporary art. Blow Your Sculpture is similar in vane but not nearly on the scale and prestige Glasstress offers.
The Washington Glass School is a comprehensive facility. They have kilns, a cold shop, cutting and modelling tables. One can also rent private studio spaces. The only thing missing is a furnace. They offer classes and workshops as well as accepting commissions. Tim, in his open and friendly way, gave me a tour of the school and tips on how to make some of the interesting panels for community based projects.
I love this fuzzy feeling of sharing knowledge, homeliness and extended family within the international glass fraternity!
After lunch with Tim and Teri (the WGS Creative Coordinator) I left to be the tourist, head filled to the brim with new ideas and possibilities.
Did you know that Washington DC and Pretoria are Sister Cities…?
I headed to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Tim gave me this tip and it was totally mind blowing. The depth of works represented there was phenomenal. The building itself is amazing with inlaid marble floors, vaulted ceilings and a magnificently covered courtyard.
As I got to the last exhibits at the top and turned left, my heart skipped a beat. Nam June Paik’s, one of my all-time favourite artists, whose work, Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, was set up in its fullest glory. All 336 television sets radiating moving imagery at full blast!
From the Smithsonian website:
“Today, the Internet and twenty-four-hour broadcasting tend to homogenize the customs and accents of what was once a more diverse nation. Paik was the first to use the phrase “electronic superhighway,” and this installation proposes that electronic media provide us with what we used to leave home to discover.”
On day two I walked around the White House to maybe get a glimpse of the US president… (not really), and noticed the flags being half-mast. Stopping and asking some friendly police officers (and there were many about) why the flags were half-mast, they told me it was the National Peace Officers Memorial Day, honouring fallen police men and women.
Taking another tip from Tim I went to the Renwick Gallery, which is situated just around the corner from the White House. It’s part of the Smithsonian American Art Museums and houses American crafts and decorative arts with some amazing glass works by artists such as Tim Tate, Karen LaMont, Norwood Viviano, Judith Schaechter and more.
I see that there will be an upcoming show by Ginny Ruffner titled Reforestation of the Imagination opening end June 2019…
What strikes me is the support by institutions such at the Smithsonian maintaining and showing important works of art but also the support of private funding and endowments to make these purchases possible. There is a foresight which promotes growth and understanding for future generations by this generous support which is somewhat lacking at home. I find that works housed within these institutions give the artists whom they represent a foothold to build, not just their own carriers, but also their mediums and modes of expression in a much broader sense and ultimately an industry of talented young creatives.
If the broader public isn’t stimulated on the diversity of ideas, craftsmanship and materials then they can’t develop a full picture of what is possible. Without this generous monetary support and genuine 21st century focused cultural foresight, South Africa and the continent will loose the development of its diverse hand-skilled knowledge and artistic heterogeneity to generic reproductions or assimilated tastes.
…in my opinion.
All the Smithsonian Museums don’t charge entrance. This makes for long days of walking and wondering through enormous spaces absorbing beautiful and diverse voices of art, science and history. It’s just impossible to see al the museums and their contents within a few days, let alone actually savouring the contents of the ones you do make the time to see.
My main focus was to look at art. Then there is no place as the Hirschhorn, National Museum of Modern Art. This strikingly round ring building floating above stilts houses some magnificent treasures. Once inside one walks three stories in a circuit, rising, via escalator, a level on each lap with new and profound exhibits.
Walking the Hirschhorn circuit through modern and contemporary art history I saw Claes Oldenburg’s Bathtub and a three channel video environment called Safe Conduct by Ed Atkins. I also contemplated my first Ron Mueck sculpture, Big Manand loved the visual combination of Brancusi’s Torso of a Young Man with Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (for Jeff) open hand in the background.
After these long days it was always a pleasant reprieve to return to the HighRoad Hostel in Adams Morgan, buying a cold beer on the way up the hill and engage in stressless conversation with fellow travellers from all over the world. I had a couple of good laughs… 😉
My last day was spent in the National Museum of African Art. This too is a Smithsonian institution which is housed next to the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall. At first glance this smallish building gives the impression of housing a quaint display or two, referencing some “typical African” styles with a few examples of metal smithing in their show Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths.
I couldn’t have been more wrong!
Once entering the “little house” and checking my backpack into a locker I descended a central staircase… with several subterranean levels unfolding beneath me.
On the first terrace large marble plaques inscribed with the words:
“The Smithsonian Institution gratefully acknowledges the support of these donors who provided funds matching congressional appropriations for the construction of this building, which was dedicated September 28, 1987.”
Reading through all the names (twice) – and there are over 160 names of foundations, corporations, countries and more – only the United Republic of Cameroon represents any true continental African affiliation. This was quite disappointing.
Looking down, over the balcony of this first terrace, was a projection of Willian Kentridge’s Felix in Exile. I remember seeing it for the first time as a student, maybe during the time we assisted Kentridge and Doris Bloom with the Fire/Gate project for the first Johannesburg Biennale in 1995.
Down I went… and each level revealed enormous curated caverns, well lit, displayed and detailed in historic as well as recent works. Imagine my surprise discovering Willie Bester’s Apartheid Laboratory! (Gift of Gilbert B. and Lila Silverman & Jerome L. and Ellen Stern, 2017-15-1)
Farther down I went… past the masks and sculptures, colourful textiles and gold jewellery, down to the bottom where the show was I wanted to see – Striking Iron.
Entering the gallery past a photo portal of a fiery sun my tired feet were forgotten for a moment. This last cavern housed a brilliantly informative display of metal work, specifically African blacksmithing, its history, tools and processes, with many examples – swords, bells, anvils, sculptures, etc.
A few video nooks showed how things are still done till this day, with hand bellows breathing heat into coke fires and anvils changing their roles to hammers… inventively inspirational.
This being my last day in DC, and all, feet hurting and head filled with new images I couldn’t just leave.
The National Air and Space Museum was around the corner, well, just down the road…
With energy levels almost on critical I stumbled into the NASM. This enormous space (pardon the pun…) was crowded to the brim with moms and dads, kids of all ages and general space nerds such as myself.
My mission objective was to go to the shop and grab some memorabilia. Feet were flattened by miles of walking and gravity started taking it’s toll…
It was like being a kid again. Rockets to the left, the Lunar Lander to the front, Russian and American space suits… the list goes on. Unfortunately (but fortunately for my feet) the museum was in the middle of rearranging and curating new exhibitions. I managed to peek over a barrier to see a Junkers 52 which my dad used to fly in during the war time.
Exhausted, I walked to the nearest Metro station, jumped on the train, got out at Dupont Circle, walked the last mile up to the Hostel, grabbed a beer, packed my bags and left early the next morning heading for New York.