Where: 1700 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC
When: Open daily, 10 am-5 pm (admission is free)
In countless books that I own, page upon page features a corner folded down on itself. These corners represent awe. They are the marker of a sentence, passage, paragraph that is so well written my mind is momentarily silenced. A folded down corner indicates that while I was reading, some use of language was so beautiful, so truthful, so full of imagery or import that I felt compelled to honor it in some way. I very likely read it over again several times, pulling whatever message it contained into myself where it could nestle among the other beautiful things I have seen, heard, smelled, touched in my lifetime. And then I folded down the corner so that in years to come, I could return to it again in moments when I need to come in contact with beauty.
This feeling of admiring awe is deeply imbued throughout the entire WONDER exhibition currently on display at the Renwick Gallery. I would fold down every single corner of every page if WONDER were a book. I would buy copies for all my friends and distribute them lavishly and freely. Although it was on my to-do list, I never got around to visiting the installation-du-jour from this past summer, Beach at the National Building Museum. It looked cute and fun, but ultimately I wasn’t overly upset to have missed it. WONDER hasn’t received nearly the same amount of coverage as Beach but oh my gosh. If you don’t see it (YOU MUST SEE IT) you will have lost out. It is special. It filled me with envy. Oh to imagine the world the way these artists did. To be crowned with the ability to envision these things and the ability to create them out of thin air. To be able to make people lie on the floor of a public building because they yearn to fully experience what you intended them to experience.
We went through the exhibit twice, unwilling to let it go. I will probably go back at least one more time before the exhibition begins closing in May 2016. Please go. Take yourself. Take your children. Take anyone you know. You can invite me, I’ll come.
Open again after two years of renovations, the stately and regal Renwick Gallery is the perfect home for the WONDER exhibition. There are nine displays, and each display gets its own room- both for size considerations (the displays are huge) and so that each exhibit stands alone, separate and apart from the other exhibits, which allows visitors to fully absorb them and take them in without distraction.
What I found so stunning about the WONDER exhibition was how each exhibit was unique and unlike any other exhibit in the gallery, and yet somehow the whole collection just fits together. No one installation looks like any other; each room is completely different, each creation has its own mood and feel, but the sum total is as if the whole thing is of a piece. I’m no good at art or maybe I could explain it better. I wish I could.
Nature appears to be the common thread that ties each room together- whether the pieces represent something in nature (as with the white mountains above, made with stacked index cards) or are literally built from nature, as with the display above, which was made using saplings. Represented are light, volume, waves, trees, bugs- and in the middle of it all, humans, fully interacting with each exhibit. “Hey,” you realize. “Hey. I’m part of this system, too.” I can’t recall another exhibition that I’ve seen that makes you feel as though you’re a vital component in the whole setup the way WONDER does. You are not merely at the exhibition. You are a part of it.
More than any other art installation or exhibition I can remember, WONDER inspires awe and conversation. Here is no quiet contemplation or rumination. All around me was discussion of what each piece meant, which piece was preferred. Upon entering one room I heard a woman say to her companion, “This entrance is much more impressive than coming in from the other side.” Everyone meandered and poked, trying to find the most interesting viewpoint, a new way of looking at each sculpture. My children and I discussed which were our favorites and why. I have pretty much never had this much fun in an art gallery is what I’m saying.
In the Grand Salon upstairs was the sculpture that absolutely rocked me- 1.8 by Janet Echelman.
Echelman’s sculpture is a visual representation of the shock waves that that tore across the Pacific Ocean in the 2004 tsunami that devastated Thailand and South Asia. And here what was violent and brutal and ugly becomes ethereal and beautiful. The lights change color every so often, morphing the experience each time you look. Destruction at the hands of Janet Echelman becomes delicate, gliding through the universe on gossamer.
Looming through a doorway in the Grand Salon is John Grade’s Middle Fork, a cedar replica made from the cast of a 150-year-old hemlock tree.
In WONDER, you approach a tree as never before- from the very bottom.
One of the most magical things about the WONDER exhibition is how your sense of your own scale adjusts with each display. In Untitled and Shindig, you feel dwarfed by monoliths; enveloped. In Middle Fork, you feel small next this mighty felled tree. In the next room, which features Maya Lin’s Folding the Chesapeake, you suddenly feel transformed into something much larger. The marbled representation of the Chesapeake Bay spilling across the floor and up the walls gives the illusion of viewing the bay from a God-like perspective. You are no longer within or below- you loom above.
When we had made our way through all the exhibits on the top floor, we repeated the circuit once more, popping back into the Grand Salon and finally, despite my initial hesitations (“This is gross, no, we aren’t lying on the floor”), acquiescing to the demands of 1.8… and lying on the floor, to go underwater, so to speak. To become even smaller. To be subsumed.
I can’t speak for everyone else in the Grand Salon, sprawled on the floor with me or otherwise. Perhaps not everyone felt at that moment the deep, throbbing appreciation and yes, envy, that I did. That is the point of art, right? To touch something within you? All I know is that lying on the floor of the Renwick Gallery’s Grand Salon, immersed in 1.8, I felt that same cognizant stillness that comes when I fold down the corner of a page of a good book. I wish I did this. I wish I could do this. What a gift to be able to do this. I want to remember this.
I can’t say enough how essential I consider a visit to WONDER Exhibition to be. It is magnificent in its scope, in what it represents, in what it stirs within. I went through twice and in writing this post, have decided a third go-round is necessary. It is a feast for the eyes, a joy for the heart, a puzzle for the brain; it is tactile without ever allowing itself to be touched, and illuminating without ever letting itself be fully known. I’m not going to say it. I won’t do it. Okay, I’m gonna do it.
We showed up at 11 am and the gallery was crowded, but not unbearably so. However, when we left the gallery around noon, the line to get in (which did not exist when we arrived) had wrapped around the building and was halfway down to the White House, a block away. If you’re planning to visit on a weekend or a weekday during Christmas break, be prepared to arrive early, or to wait in a line.