Destinies Made Manifest: Reading the Washington Mall
Exploring the seat of American power, Destinies Made Manifest: Reading the Washington Mall examines the process of monument making and its role in the construction of national identity. Continuously shaped and remade over the last 200 years, the National Mall functions as a space in which to commemorate the triumphs and tribulations of the nation. Unfettered access to lawmakers and freedom of movement underlay the Mall’s conception. Though it continues to serve as a gathering point for protests and marches, this complex has ultimately come to represent “official” state narratives, constructed in order to reflect the American project of democracy as unambiguous, exceptional, and eternal.
Emphasizing the principles of freedom and liberty, the processional nature of the Mall, with its separate yet connected monumental spaces, is best understood as a walking history. Here, spectators enter an immersive environment, where scale, depth, and the shifting perceptions brought about by bodily movement register powerfully. Akin to a pilgrimage, walking the two miles from the Capitol building to the Lincoln Memorial is a physical challenge freighted with cultural meaning.
My photographic exhibition, carefully grouped and sequenced, is likewise conceived as an immersive experience, meant to parallel a walk on the actual Mall, and to incite reflection on American history. To aid the unfamiliar, I provide a map clearly situating the memorials on the Mall, inviting viewers to ponder the big picture and understand the relationships between the monumental spaces. I use photographic strategies in order to direct the gaze of spectators toward a monument or a particular inscription. In isolation, the detail becomes amplified—and subject to scrutiny and even doubt. What is pictured may also raise the specter of what remains unsaid.
“In isolation, the detail becomes amplified—and subject to scrutiny and even doubt. What is pictured may also raise the specter of what remains unsaid.”
Beginning the exhibition sequence with the Vietnam War Memorial directory—listing the names of some 58,200 dead—I create an analogy between reading the Mall and commemorating/ acknowledging the dead. The image of the book is also a reminder that the function of the Mall is to narrativize history. Comprised of 22 large format color images, my sequence creates a reading that is cumulative, playing upon the phrases photographed from individual monuments, just as these histories build upon and dialogue with one another. Moving from the Vietnam War memorial we see the Lincoln Memorial. The neoclassical architectural setting dwarfs the 19-foot-tall statue of the great emancipator. Shot from a different perspective, King’s “I Have A Dream,” inscription on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial functions not only as a reference to the 1963 march, but also to African Americans’ long held desire for justice, and to the greater struggle of civil rights going back to the Emancipation Proclamation. At the same time, it also serves to remind us of the violence of the struggle, which not only cost the lives of both King and Lincoln but of untold thousands during the Civil War. It becomes in essence, an ode to our dead, and a reminder of the contentious nature of “freedom” in America. The next image in the sequence reads: “To Our Dead,” portraying a flaming sword, held in the hand of an avenging warrior. A tiny Indian head emblazoned in the star on the sword’s gilt begs the question: “Who are ‘Our Dead’?” Lincoln? King? Metacomet? Tecumseh? Are the victims of lynching “Our Dead”? Are the people of the First Nations “Our Dead” too? Another image representing the base of a giant flagpole reads, “Americans Came to Liberate, Not” opening up an alternative interpretation depending on one’s standpoint: liberation or occupation? “Freedom Is Not Free,” is one more proclaimation carved into the black-green granite of the Korean War Memorial. If “Freedom” is not “Free,” who pays for it?
“Comprised of 22 large format color images, my sequence creates a reading that is cumulative, playing upon the phrases photographed from individual monuments, just as these histories build upon and dialogue with one another.”
Another strategy I use to address historical omissions is to rearrange the placement of monuments. In my re-presentation of the Mall, the Memorial to Japanese American Patriots is moved from its obscure plot north of the Capitol grounds to a place next to the DC War Memorial. Commemorating both the injustices visited upon 120,000 Japanese Americans interned from 1942-45, and the sacrifices made by Nisei soldiers drafted out of the camps, it is a stone’s throw from where the first Japanese cherry trees were planted along the Tidal Basin. “Here We Admit a Wrong,” first uttered by Ronald Reagan in 1988, is writ large on pink granite walls as a reminder of the greatest travesty of democracy since Jim Crow laws. Reversing the practice of erasure in official history making, my itinerary also inserts some of the missing chapters in the national narrative through “artful” construction. By synthesizing the visual language of photography with historical research and digital manipulation, I monumentalize histories that might not see the light of day—at least on the Mall. Addressing the absence of First Nations’ agency in the founder’s narrative, The American Indian Wars/The Long War, catalogues a constant stream of violent encounters between English colonists and First Peoples beginning with the Pequot War in Massachusetts. It also asserts the fact of a populated continent—fighting back in the face of invasion and colonization. A Century of Military Interventions/Peace is Our Profession addresses American Imperialism and militarism, telling a fuller story of how our superpower status was obtained largely through unbridled military aggression. Quoting the motto from the Strategic Air Command branch of the armed forces, the irony of “Peace Is Our Profession” (also used by Stanley Kubrick in Dr. Strangelove) underlines the instability of language and the cynicism engendered in the military industrial complex.
“By synthesizing the visual language of photography with historical research and digital manipulation, I monumentalize histories that might not see the light of day—at least on the Mall. “
The aforementioned map, presented in a display case near the entry to the gallery, is based on a National Park Service schema of the Mall, clearly situating the monuments. Contradicting the layout presented in the gallery, it shows the Japanese American Memorial in its actual spot on the corner of New Jersey and D Street. However, it does not show The Long War or A Century of Military Interventions. After careful examination, one will discover the spot where the great contralto singer Marian Anderson performed on April 9, 1939, indicated on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in the same place that other celebrated African American inspired millions. In Anderson’s case, 75,000 came to hear her sing after the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused her a booking at Constitution Hall—an all-white venue—despite the fact that she was a world-renowned performer. Drawing from multiple sources, my work aims to question the relationships between the American narrative and the history of violence associated with it. Compelling viewers to reflect upon the selective process of history making, my work aims to trouble the representation of American history as a means to generate dialogue about where we go from here.