Sunday, January 4, 2009

Washington DC revisited

Last time when the family visited Washington DC was over a decade ago. While the history of America only aged a little since, there have been some new additions and several exhibits that we had not visited before, not to mention the excitement and constructions for the impending inauguration of President Barrack Obama. During the X’mas vacation, the family decided to pay another visit to DC and below is some of my observations.

National WWII Memorial: it was dedicated in Aug 2004 and sits right between the Reflection Pool and the Washington Monument on the East-West axis defined by the Capitol and Lincoln Memorial pf National Mall. It is ugly, unimaginative and pompous. Only thing it does is to take away the beautiful green open space and replaced it with concrete Roman ruin like columns, completed with wreaths. Fortunately, it is short enough and far enough from the Reflection Pool that if you stand on top of the staircase of Lincoln memorial, it would not ruin the reflection of Washington Monument.

Korean War Veterans Memorial: US Congress did not declare war of this 3 years 1950-1953 armed conflicts in Korea Peninsula although by all accounts, the state of war did exist. This memorial was dedicated in July 1995 in honor of those who fought the war including over 60,000 died and MIA (Missing in Action). The center piece consists of 19 larger than life-size stainless steel statues of soldiers silently on patrol in a rugged terrain (see the photo on the right).

What is often overlooked is that there were also estimated almost 2 million Koreans (North and South) and half a million Chinese who lost their lives in that war, not including associated family and social destruction. All in all, it was clearly a proxy war at the dawn of the Cold War right after WWII ended. Many human tragedies and casualties are resulted. For some reasons, I have not come across too many western films and arts that address or motivated by Korean War. There have been however some good works from east (culturally). The 2004 novel War Trash by the award winning Chinese American author Ha Jin 哈金 depicts the war through the eyes and thoughts of a captured Chinese army clerical officer. There is also a well-made Korean TV history drama Seoul 1945 by KBS in the 2006 season. It explores the history through the tragic lives and intertwined paths of several young people and their families who were caught up in the proxy war and politics that they could not possibly foresee or change.

There is a black granite wall with sandblasted figures on the southern border of the Korean War Veterans Memorial that echoes the serenate Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall built earlier on the north side of the National Mall. It was dedicated in Nov 1982 and I never got bored of listening to the stories of how the 21 years old Chinese American Yale architecture student Maya Ying Lin 林瓔 won the open blind competition, the ensuing controversy and how she defended her design in front of US congress; and most of all, how she conceived such an incredible work that broke away from the traditional war memorials and touched so many hears and souls. With it, she healed the wounds, delivered the calm and closure through this simple V-shape black reflecting granite in an otherwise overwhelming political theater and crowd. She had done it without a single gun or figure or uniform or medal or rank or name of military unit. Rather, a full circle of 58,253 names of dead soldiers and MIA engraved in chronological order (1959-1975) absorbs and connects with the visitors and mourners through the reflecting wall as if you had become a part of deceased’s world. Without a doubt this is the most beautiful architecture work among numerous monuments in DC and the world. It is the only war memorial I know of that attracted millions of people not because of the glory and grandness of the cold stones but the humility and the lives connected to it.

Of course, Vietnam War was another major proxy war of the Cold War. With more advanced weapons, it took 3-4 millions Vietnamese lives, not counting additional millions of Laos and Cambodians. A little different from the Korean War, it was authorized by US Congress but was never declared officially as a war either. Unlike Korean War however, it has drawn huge debates and confrontations, and produced profound impacts on social, political, and cultural fabric of US.

On south side of the National Mall behind trees and hills, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial was dedicated in May 1997 with 4 outdoor rooms of sculptures tracing through his historical 3+ terms of presidency from Great Depression to Post WWII. One dramatic sculpture in the first room is George Segal’s Depression Bread Line (see photo on right). The second copy (1999) of this sculpture can be found in Grounds for Sculpture garden in New Jersey that I will talk about later in this blog.

Instead of revisiting the popular National Air and Space Museum on National Mall, we drove to its companion Steven Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington Dulles International Airport, west of DC. With its large hangars, the center houses a few impressive large aerospace vehicles in history, among others. They include a Concord, the only supersonic commercial passenger aircraft (that ceased to operate in 2003), a SR-71 Blackbird “spy” plane which is the fastest jet ever (at Mach 3+ or 2,200+ miles/hour) and ceased to operate in 1998, and the Space Shuttle Enterprise, the first Space Shuttle built for test flights in atmosphere only. Facing those beautiful shapes of flying objects and enormous engines and power, one can only be wowed by the decades of smarts and technologies that had gone into the designs and tests, starting from some concept and dreams. In contrast, quietly sitting at one end of a hangar, you will find the famous Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress bomber that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug 6, 1945 that hastened the end of WWII in Pacific. 60+ years later, with the continuing controversy and debate of the use of atomic bombs, the display only highlights the technical data and briefly states the plane was used to drop the first bomb - no discussions and no fanfares.

The last morning before we headed home, we walked a few blocks from our hotel near DuPont Circle to visit Phillips Collection, the first Modern Arts museum of America, opened in 1921. It has wonderful collections of impressionists’ work and contemporary arts in galleries and cozy family rooms of its founder Duncan Phillips. Of course, every visitor will not miss its most famous collection – Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. Duncan Phillips, at age 27, acquired it for $125,000 in summer of 1923, the highest price ever paid for modern arts painting at the time. By the way his fortune mostly came from his grandfather’s Pittsburgh steel mills business.

180 miles north in New Jersey, American Sculptor Seward Johnson, the grandson of Robert Wood Johnson I, founder of the Johnson & Johnson Corporation (at a market cap of almost $200 Billion dollars), had set up a beautiful sculpture garden in 1993 called Grounds for Sculpture, 40 minutes from our house. Seward Johnson is famous for his trompe l’oeil painted cast bronze sculptures, some of which are displayed at the garden. Among them, you will find his creation of Renoir’s very painting of Luncheon of the Boating Party. It is interesting to see the painting and the sculpture side by side below. The garden is close to the main highways connecting NYC, Philadelphia and Washington DC that makes it a perfect stop-over for arts enthusiasts.

We had a wonderful family vacation in Washington DC. We wish you Happy New Year. Talk to you soon!

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