Thousands of visitors who climb the Washington Monument this month will enjoy one of the best views possible of the latest show at the National Portrait Gallery. It comprises a single portrait, built from sand and soil by artist Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada, on a six-acre plot along the National Mall.
Out of Many, One borrows its name from the Latin phrase enshrined on the dollar and institutions all around the nation's capital: E pluribus unum. In a literal sense, it describes the subject of his piece. The artist photographed dozens of young men in D.C. to create one digitally amalgamated portrait, a vision of a singular Washingtonian.
"[The work] is based on the ideals of diversity, and diversity is what has made the country great," Rodríguez-Gerada says.
Out of Many, One might also sum up the way the work came together. Using satellite technology usually preserved for mass-agriculture—and with the permission and assistance of the Trust for the National Mall and the U.S. National Park Service—Rodríguez-Gerada has built the largest portrait to ever appear on (and in) U.S. soil.
"Portraiture, for a lot of people, is something that's in the waste bin, stagnant," the artist told me during a tour of the site, pre-construction. "Something used by aristocracy to remember themselves." His work, instead, is extremely public.
It's no easy feat for even the finest aristocratic portrait to find a berth in a museum along the National Mall, much less for a living artist to nab working space on the Mall itself. It's not even a simple task for a museum such as the National Portrait Gallery—the Smithsonian Institution museum that brought Rodríguez-Gerada to Washington—to nab a spot there. Cultural organizations are finding it harder and harder to bring programming to the Mall, which serves as America's Front Yard but also a prized park and memorial space. (One that's prone to wear and tear given the 25 million visitors it receives in a year.)
So it helped that National Mall stakeholders were already planning on converting the six-acre John F. Kennedy Hockey Field—yes, that was a thing—into soccer fields when National Portrait Gallery director Kim Sajet came calling. Within mere months, the artist's team had begun construction on the piece, which opens to the public on Saturday.
What viewers will see on the National Mall—whether they're walking over it on foot, peering at it from a window seat on a plane inbound for Reagan National Airport, or looking down on it from the top of the Washington Monument—is a six-acre portrait, precise to the centimeter.
Creating Out of Many, One required many hands. Three volunteer crews from Clark Construction hauled out more than 2,300 tons of sand and 800 tons of soil to physically construct the portrait. To plan it, crews staked some 15,000 wooden pegs into the ground, tying them together with more than 8 miles of string. Many companies donated or provided materials, including Stancills (contracting), Chaney Enterprises (sand), A.H. Hatcher (soil), and Bulldog Group (trucks).
Rodríguez-Gerada is working in the tradition of 1960s Land Art makers Robert Smithson or Michael Heizer, but he's using technology beyond the scope of most earth artworks. To physically plot out Out of Many, One, the artist tapped Topcon Positioning Systems, a California-based land surveyor and engineering firm. Topcon is a ubiquitous presence in precision agriculture, the kind of advanced farming practiced by agri-corporations like Monsanto as well as by not-so-traditional farmers who have taken to bleeding-edge automation and mapping systems.
Between five and 15 GPS satellites, a number that Topcon director of product marketing Scott Langbein describes as a "constellation," worked to provide incredibly precise positioning to create the artwork. In order to make an accurate, photomontage piece using bulldozers and dirt, Rodríguez-Gerada's team needed to stake every point, turn, and crevice in the portrait—to an accuracy of one centimeter to one half-inch.
"I think something like this doesn’t happen unless it’s supposed to happen," said Rodríguez-Gerada. "Everyone understanding the science behind the piece, but also the humanity behind the piece."
Topcon took the artist's final portrait, converted it into a design file, relayed the file to space, and converted the instructions from space to directions on the ground. Rodríguez-Gerada made the portrait using more familiar artist tools. The Cuban-born American artist, who is based in Barcelona, traveled around Washington, D.C., snapping portraits of 50 men aged 18 to 24, both white and black, whose features he then combined digitally.
Out of Many, One is the first large-scale outdoor exhibition mounted by the National Portrait Gallery, and certainly the largest portrait the museum has ever commissioned. Despite the unprecedented scale, it is of a piece with other modern portraits commissioned by or shown at the museum. Like a lot of recent portrait artists, Rodríguez-Gerada is concerned with individuality, anonymity, collectivism, and photographic process. (The photorealist artist Chuck Close lingers behind much of his work.)
The conversation about technology and how it mediates portraiture is catching up with Rodríguez-Gerada's career, and in a big way. The artist said that his work doesn't have much of anything to do with the biggest trend in portraiture—the selfie—though he is interested in the technology that has made the selfie such a huge thing. "I think the use of the selfie in contemporary art is a little weak," Rodríguez-Gerada says. "Some artists use that in a way that’s sort of throwaway. There’s no true contemplation why. It’s this flippant thing that happens." Yet he won't dismiss the selfie out of hand. Plainly, it's portraiture, just the same as his own: "It’s a photograph of a face."
Arlington's DigitalGlobe will be the last company to pitch in for Out of Many, One. The satellite-imagery firm is snapping a photo of the work from orbit, making it perhaps the first-ever portrait visible from space. That's the way most viewers will see it: a digital reproduction of a piece of tilled land. But, because the work is both a portrait and a landscape, the best vantage point may actually be from the ground.
"We have the ability to walk through it. I think there’s a really nice visual and experiential metaphor of walking through the face to try to find out where you are," Rodríguez-Gerada. "We’re used to walking through a place by seeing whether you’re by the house, or the tree. Now it's, 'Where’s the eye?'"
UPDATE 10/9: This is the view of Out of Many, One captured by DigitalGlobe’s GeoEye-1 satellite on Oct. 6. From space.