How did Earth implode? Who knows. We may have spread too many germs or killed all the trees or had too many babies. The zeitgeist has long held an interest in ailing dystopias, but in Ellen Harvey’s “The Alien’s Guide to the Ruins of D.C.,” the worst has happened. We no longer exist. All that’s left are aliens in a distant future trying to make sense of our bits and pieces.
Born in the U.K. and based in Brooklyn, N.Y., Harvey studied at Yale, Harvard, and the Whitney Museum, where she did an independent study. One of her last projects, “The Nudist Museum Gift Shop,” examined how context changes the meaning of nude and pornographic images. Her newest work is featured this summer at the Corcoran Gallery’s ongoing NOW series, which highlights up-and-coming contemporary artists.
Through several mixed-media pieces, she transports us into the minds of her aliens, illustrating how a foreign species may have interpreted traditions humans patted themselves on the back for: tourist sites, respected statues, grandiose monuments. While the focus is on reconstructing a picture of Washington, D.C., the exhibit pulls in metropolises from all over the world in its analysis.
The aliens coin humankind the “Pillar-Builders.” Their explanations of the society-that-once-was are terribly wrong in a delightful way. The U.S. Capitol, for example, is predicted to have been used as a center for “stroking after mealtimes or singing.”
The “Pillar-Builder Archive” is installed on a sparse, white wall cluttered with an overwhelming 3,000 postcards and cutouts depicting cities and major landmarks organized by the same classic architectural attributes. Photos of Havana’s capitol are pasted alongside images of the U.S. capitol. The ubiquitous neoclassical styles make each landmark indistinguishable—everything starts to look like the Parthenon after a while.
“The Alien Guide,” a small brochure written in tiny alien scrawl, asks an appropriate question: “What drove this primate Earth-wide society to collaborate in creating innumerate variations of the same thing all over the place?”
Despite the good-humored conclusions, the aliens’ lens renders our trashed empires smaller, more repetitive, and far less interesting. Through all the majestic structures that, to be honest, we can find in any part of the globe, we lose the nuances and what Harvey calls “the in-betweens”—the detail of graffiti or the intimacy of a hand-painted sign.
The aliens are perplexed by us, but that doesn’t stop them from capitalizing on an invented history. In a very human-like move, they’ve turned the ruins into a tourist destination marked by the “Alien Souvenir Stand,” which Harvey fashioned out of aluminum panel and oil paint. Maybe like in our world, ancient sites will be revered with the purchase of a keychain and a Polaroid of two aliens flashing a peace sign.
Harvey’s work plays with the way we interpret art and foreign concepts, and the values we assign to our culture. If you delete the context, what are the possible explanations for all the bizarre things we humans do? We walk out of the exhibit thinking about our traditions, and suddenly, we ourselves seem like the strange aliens.