Updated: Feb. 4, 2019 at 1:35 p.m.
Months after the election of President Donald Trump, protest messages joking about paying bribes to the president and calling his hotel situated blocks from campus a “shithole” were projected on buildings across the city and spread rapidly on social media.
Now, the Flagg Building’s hollow first-floor exhibition space will be transformed by projections created by the same artist when “Open” makes its debut Thursday.
Robin Bell, a former Corcoran School of the Arts and Design professor of video editing and production, created projections for the exhibit that urge people to rethink the definition of the word “open.” The exhibit will be open through March 31 with projections displayed on the walls and stairs of the Atrium Gallery from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 1 to 6 p.m. on weekends.
Bell said the exhibit will analyze transparency and accountability in politics – while also commenting on the Corcoran’s choice to cancel a show, “The Perfect Moment” by Robert Mapplethorpe in 1989 – through his signature projections, lights and even televisions.
“Open” is a prelude to another upcoming exhibit, “6.13.89,” which will open later this year in the Corcoran and will build on Bell’s references to the Mapplethorpe show that was canceled amid the AIDS crisis and political pressure from the “religious right” because of controversy surrounding Mapplethorpe’s art.
“I think the cancellation of Robert Mapplethorpe’s show is a stain on the institution,” Bell said. “It was a stain on Corcoran because it failed in standing up for celebrated American genius, it failed to create a voice. It censored an American voice.”
His exhibit focuses on the word “open” because he said the Corcoran – before it was absorbed by the University in 2014 – failed to be transparent by censoring the art exhibit and closing the building to the public.
“The issue of this building’s history is that a lot of people will be coming back into it – there’s a sense of it being closed. I think that’s something that’s good to examine,” Bell said. “The only way we can examine it is by being physically here.”
While examining what led to Corcoran’s exhibit closure in 1989, Bell said he drew parallels between the political environment in the late 1980s and the political environment today. He said during the AIDS epidemic, people involved in politics cared more about targeting an artist’s work than about the tens of thousands of people dying from AIDS, and the trend of leaders shifting focus from problems at hand still happens today.
“It’s harder for people to be open because they have to think differently,” Bell said. “When you have closure – when you have people that try to close borders or try to close ways of life or ignore people’s lives – it’s easier for them because they can just hide.”
While Bell is now taking his political speech into the halls of GW, he is no stranger to political art. In addition to his projections on the Trump International Hotel, he recently displayed a portrait of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who was killed while reporting abroad, on the facade of the Newseum and bold text reading “#BelieveSurvivors” outside a D.C. courthouse while hearings to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court took place.
“I personally think what makes a democracy is discussion, compromise and figuring out ways of communicating, and that’s challenging – it’s not easy,” Bell said. “But I think that art has a way of breaking down those conversations, breaking those discussions down and having the ability to highlight everything in between.”
Bell said that more than anything, he hopes his exhibit sparks conversation despite the “general atmosphere” in some communities of trying to censor voices.
“It’s essential to create dialogue,” he said. “A lot of time we need to question people who are scared of discussions – that’s the challenge. I think that’s what we’re up against.
This post was updated to reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet incorrectly spelled Robert Mapplethorpe’s name on one reference. It has been corrected. We regret this error.