Whenever a locality in the DC area produces many identical fiberglass or resin sculptures, commissions artists to use them as their canvases, and puts the finished works in public spaces throughout the area, I feel a strong compulsion to find and photograph them all.
Usually these public art phenomena relate to the area where the statues stand: turtles in College Park, for the University of Maryland’s mascot; airplanes in Crystal City, in honor of nearby Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport; fish and crabs in Baltimore, which has the Inner Harbor and the National Aquarium; raised hands in DC to advocate for full voting representation; pandas in DC commemorating Tai Shan.
In 2009, 47 heart sculptures came to DC, part of a branding campaign known as “Colombia Is Passion.” The art exhibit itself was called Discover Colombia Through Its Heart. This installation did not pay tribute to a local claim to fame like the public art exhibits mentioned above, but instead celebrated Colombia – one way in which the series of sculptures was unusual. Additionally, not every piece was a fiberglass three-dimensional art form. A few made the heart shape in more atypical materials; one piece in the series was a heart-shaped fully functional coffee shop.
The installation, with heart sculptures at Union Station, the Lincoln Memorial, and other places in the city, was fun to photograph. These hearts were full of color, portraying Colombia as a land of art, music, flowers, and coffee. For me, much of the enjoyment comes from going to different places and finding every piece in the series.
Last September, I visited the Inter-American Development Bank Cultural Center. In this small museum space, I viewed the exhibition The Marvelous Real: Colombia Through the Vision of its Artists. A video in the exhibit showed a heart shape being cut into a man’s chest – the exact shape of the heart sculptures on display in DC in 2009. The artist, Andrés Felipe Uribe Cárdenas, created this video as a critical response to the heart-as-Colombia’s-national-brand campaign. Uribe titled the video “Marca Nacional Registrada,” or “Country Trademark (National Brand),” and the imagery juxtaposes the campaign to promote Colombia internationally with the religious idea of the Sacred Heart.
The heart sculptures garnered controversy from others besides Uribe. Protesters characterized the campaign as propaganda that ignores violations of “human, labor and environmental rights in Colombia.” The sculptures were called advertising rather than works of art. Indeed, the hearts did not have the same feel as other public art installations I’ve seen, in which each sculpture is the unique creation of a different commissioned local artist.
Did the exhibit The Marvelous Real present the true heart of Colombia better than the fiberglass hearts? The exhibit showed the perspectives of 24 different artists, not a public relations campaign. Was the exhibit the ultimate artistic statement on Colombia? No. There isn’t one; no one exhibit or work of art can be. And the IDB is not without its own controversy.
Between these two exhibits, we see a heart made of coffee and a heart made of blood. Hearts are ubiquitous right now, especially hearts made of paper or candy. Whatever is in your heart right now, happy Valentine’s Day weekend!