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Stunning Artworks Attract Record Crowds, Thanks to Social Media


A multicolored rainbow made of thread, towering mountains built entirely from index cards, and pink walls decorated with thousands of preserved insects — those are among the nine, giant-sized exhibits at the historic Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington that have been drawing record crowds, thanks to social media.

Curator-in-charge Nicholas Bell said he’s never seen anything like the reaction to the WONDER collection.

“In our wildest dreams, when we were closed for renovations and planning this show, we never could have anticipated the response that we've received in the last two months,” he said during his interview with VOA in a packed showroom.

Historic building

Following a two-year renovation, the museum invited nine leading contemporary artists to each select a room in the Renwick and create an installation inspired by that space.

It was a perfect way to reopen the building, said Bell, while celebrating the historic building itself, which was the first purpose-built art museum in the United States.

Artist Tara Donovan's mountains are made up of hundreds of thousands of index cards. (J. Taboh/VOA)

Artist Tara Donovan's mountains are made up of hundreds of thousands of index cards. (J. Taboh/VOA)

As visitors enter the exhibit's first gallery, they are immediately greeted by a whole mountain range made out of hundreds of thousands of index cards — a painstaking creation by New York artist Tara Donovan.

In an adjoining room, Gabriel Dawe has strung from floor to ceiling a rainbow out of 60 miles of cotton thread, using every color in the visible spectrum. Visitors enjoyed posing with and taking pictures of it — to share with others on social media.

Jessica Liou takes a picture of fellow museum visitor Megan Limson at the WONDER exhibit, Renwick Gallery, Washington. (J. Taboh/VOA)

Jessica Liou takes a picture of fellow museum visitor Megan Limson at the WONDER exhibit, Renwick Gallery, Washington. (J. Taboh/VOA)

There is also a whole village that artist Patrick Dougherty has woven out of willow sticks, with windows that visitors can peer through and doors they can walk through.

And that's just the first floor of WONDER.

As visitors climb the grand staircase in the middle of the building, they will see an enormous light sculpture by artist Leo Villareal that is blinking with 23,000 LEDs on a randomized algorithm so they're changing all the time.

Janet Echelman’s net sculpture represents the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011. (Credit: Bruce Petschek)

Janet Echelman’s net sculpture represents the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011. (Credit: Bruce Petschek)

In the vast salon, visitors can relax under a massive and colorful knotted net sculpture that's almost 100 feet long that artist Janet Echelman created to represent the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011.

Patterns from insects

One of the most popular attractions is the room by Jennifer Angus, who has created vivid patterns on the wall using 5,000 dried and preserved insects from Southeast Asia. Even the pink walls are dyed from cochineal, which is insect-based dye.

Artist Jennifer Angus installs "In The Midnight Garden." (Credit: Ron Blunt/Renwick Gallery)

Artist Jennifer Angus installs "In The Midnight Garden." (Credit: Ron Blunt/Renwick Gallery)

The dead insects didn't seem to bother 5-year-old Lucie Swift-Morgan, who was busy looking through some drawers in an antique cabinet in the middle of the room. Each drawer contains different scenes and is filled with dried insects and other interesting objects.

There is also a labyrinth made out of discarded tire rubber by artist Chakaia Booker, and artist Maya Lin used fiberglass marble to re-create the Chesapeake Bay Estuary, which runs all across the floor of the gallery and up the walls to the ceiling.

Finally, there is artist John Grade's creation: He found a 150-year-old hemlock tree in Washington state — it's the same age as the Renwick building — made a cast of it, and then re-created it out of a half-million hand-carved blocks of cedar.

Graphic artist David Smith, visiting from Texas, said he was impressed by the "immense attention to detail" shown by the artist.

“When you just look at it, you're overwhelmed with the image, but when you learn more and more about the pieces, you really appreciate the artist’s thinking behind it and then the work that went into it," he said.

Artist John Grade re-created a 150-year-old hemlock tree with a half-million hand-carved blocks of cedar. (J. Taboh/VOA)

Artist John Grade re-created a 150-year-old hemlock tree with a half-million hand-carved blocks of cedar. (J. Taboh/VOA)

Photos to share

His son, Josh Smith, said he learned of the exhibit on Instagram.

"I saw these beautiful pictures of the rainbow and the dead bugs, and I figured when my parents arrive, it would be a cool thing for them to see in D.C.”

And he planned to share the pictures he took, on Instagram. “As soon as we go have happy hour, I'll probably post a whole bunch of stuff and see who gets mad because they weren't here!” he said with a smile.

Kian Khanjani and Dominique Hetu also learned about the exhibit on Instagram.

“I haven't seen anything like this before," said Khanjani. "We saw six or seven exhibits here, and this I can say is my number one,” he added, referring to the decorated walls of the insect room.

“I really like the lights, the hanging chandelier," said his friend Hetu. "I like how pretty much every room is using something that you wouldn't normally expect it to be artwork.”

And that, said Bell, is what the exhibit is all about.

“One of the real challenges for working in any museum is understanding how best to engage visitors of all ages," he said. "And I was elated to see one of our recent reviewers say that this was a show for everyone from 9 to 90.”

Visitors of all ages, eager to experience WONDER, and share it with the world.

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