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Out of many faces, one American portrait: Artist creates ‘facescape’ on the National Mall

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now to a new public art installation in the nation's capital that is both huge in size and meaning.

    Jeffrey Brown takes us there.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It's called a facescape, a portrait of a young man in the very heart of the National Mall in Washington, that can be seen in full only from the top of the Washington Monument or from the sky above.

    Starting small, it built up like a snowball, over six acres, taking four weeks of construction and requiring 2,000 tons of sand, 800 tons of soil, 10,000 pegs, and miles of twine.

    It's the work of Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada and was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery. And, indeed, the artist conceived it as a portrait that would, like much of his work, explore the question of identity.

    JORGE RODRIGUEZ-GERADA, Artist, "Out of Many, One": Identity is an amazing thing. What we look like is what people will judge immediately when they see you. And that's something that you — you're born with and it follows you for the rest of your life.

    My idea is to change the reasons why portraits are made, is to really to explore portraiture in a very new way.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Curator Taina Caragol says Rodriguez-Gerada is doing just that.

  • TAINA CARAGOL, National Portrait Gallery:

    We conceive of it as a face, but a portrait can be much more than a face. He is working on what we could think of as a land art of the 21st century, with satellite technology, with dirt, and sand. This is an ephemeral art work, so that's also something that goes partly against the tradition of portraiture, which is a genre used to memorialize people.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The installation on the National Mall, between the Lincoln and the World War II memorials, is actually a composite, created from close to 50 photographs the artist took of young men age 18 to 25 around Washington.

    And it is very much an American portrait, titled "Out of Many, One," e pluribus unum. It also plays off another idiom, that of marketing.

  • JORGE RODRIGUEZ-GERADA:

    The face represents the celebration of diversity. And I think that diversity is what made — is one of the things that makes the nation so great. The idea is to use the same ideas of scale and position and everything else used in marketing, but for completely different reasons, not to sell you anything, that let us contemplate the idea of identity.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Rodriguez-Gerada, 48, was born in Cuba and raised in New Jersey. His early work, in the 1990s, was subversive, altering billboards in ways that questioned the motives and methods of advertisers, especially in urban areas.

    It's funny that you started out doing essentially illegal-type work, and then there you are standing on the National Mall asked to do this.

  • JORGE RODRIGUEZ-GERADA:

    Yes. Well, it wasn't…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Is it not ironic for you?

  • JORGE RODRIGUEZ-GERADA:

    During that time, we were able to get enough of that work done that tobacco advertising was taken off of billboards. When I was doing that, it was because I really thought it was awful. I wasn't hurting anyone. And the dialogue was to hopefully get some of that stuff stopped.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The first large facescape he tackled was titled "Expectation," a giant sand painting in the likeness of then-candidate Barack Obama created on a Barcelona beach.

    In 2013, in Belfast, he created "Wish," the United Kingdom's largest portrait ever, spread over 11 acres, this time of an anonymous girl. And in Amsterdam, a human rights activist, part of a campaign defending women targeted for their work in Central America. This one spanned almost two football fields.

  • JORGE RODRIGUEZ-GERADA:

    I can only work big if it's intrinsic to the message. Working big doesn't make any sense unless what you're saying is really important as well. So the only things I have ever done big are — were big things to talk about.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You mean big ideas require big space?

  • JORGE RODRIGUEZ-GERADA:

    Yes, yes. It's the — if you're going to give something a wow factor like this…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    This has a wow factor, huh?

  • JORGE RODRIGUEZ-GERADA:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes.

  • JORGE RODRIGUEZ-GERADA:

    It's very difficult to do anything on the National Mall. And for the Park Service and the trust for the National Mall and the Smithsonian to all work together, Clark Construction, Topcon, I mean, a lot of things have to come together for something like this to happen, and it did.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    On the ground, as Rodriguez-Gerada showed us, visitors experience the work as though in a maze.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So, where are we now?

  • JORGE RODRIGUEZ-GERADA:

    We're now in the eyebrow.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You have got this face in your head, right?

  • JORGE RODRIGUEZ-GERADA:

    This is completely memorized in my head. I know exactly where I am at all times.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Private companies donated their services to install the work, which involved advanced technology, along with all that soil and sand.

    Laura Wachs of Clark Construction:

  • LAURA WACHS, Clark Construction:

    Jorge designed it on the computer and sent it to the surveying company that made his drawing into data points that we could put out into the world onto this field. And, from that, our surveyors are working with little GPS computers.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The installation comes at a time when the National Mall is in the midst of a major restoration project, the removal of damaged soil, installing a new irrigation system and planting new grass.

    The facescape project is now part of that process. At the end of this month, the soil and sand will be tilled back into the ground. In many ways, National Mall and Parks Superintendent Bob Vogel says, the artwork is perfect for this premier civic space.

    BOB VOGEL, National Mall and Memorial Parks: This is a place where people come, and they grieve, they celebrate, they demonstrate. We want people to look at it, and get people to think and to talk about it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It's a face with a short life, soon to be erased, with hopes that its component parts and meaning live on.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    To hear more from Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada, and see his other facescapes, go to our Art Beat page at PBSNewsHour.org.

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