Inside the Alien's Guide to the Ruins of Washington, D.C. | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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(Ellen Harvey / Courtesy of Corcoran Gallery of Art)

Inside the Alien's Guide to the Ruins of Washington, D.C.

To us, the architecture of the Lincoln Memorial is an iconic callback to ancient Greece. But what would extraterrestrials make of it?

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If thousands of years from now aliens landed in the crumbling ruins of Washington, D.C., what would they make of it? Ellen Harvey has a wild imagination. These days, the artist has been musing about aliens, and about this bizarre question, in particular.

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The thought exercise began about a year and a half ago, when Harvey visited the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Sarah Newman, the museum’s curator of contemporary art, invited the artist to work on an exhibition for the Corcoran’s NOW series. The program encourages emerging and mid-career artists to create art inspired by the museum building and its surroundings.

Harvey admired the stalwart columns in the museum’s atrium and gathered, perhaps more than ever before, that neoclassical architecture, with its domes, pillars, peaks and porticos, was not the architecture of her native London and the British Empire, as she thought as a child, or the architecture of democracy, strictly, but a pervasive style that holds meaning for many cultures.

“It’s really infectious,” says Harvey, but “the more I looked at it, the weirder it seemed.”

Enter aliens. Harvey began to imagine beings from another planet settling our nation’s capital, long after we are gone, and the assumptions they might make of us, Earth’s previous inhabitants.

“The aliens, basically, get everything wrong,” says Harvey, with a wry smile.

In the artist’s harebrained scheme, the aliens decide that the “lost pillar builders of the Earth” were a semi-aquatic species that lived in the ocean, but swam upriver once a year to spawn. In these periods of flirtatious frenzy, the creatures assembled “pillar-things,” a.k.a. neoclassical buildings, on the banks.

The aliens find a time capsule containing thousands of postcards of other “pillar-things”—Monticello, Finland’s Parliament, the Buda Castle in Budapest, to name a few—and determine that D.C.’s landmarks inspired buildings and monuments around the world. The Parthenon, for instance, was modeled after the Lincoln Memorial, which the aliens know only as “The Flat Pillar-Thing.” They come up with a vocabulary to describe common architectural features; the three types of pillars, for example, are “boring” (Doric), “frilly” (Ionic) and “very frilly” (Corinthian). And, since structures in far-flung places are so similar, the aliens draw a natural inference: The individuals within the species communicated telepathically.

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Harvey spins this complex yarn, with all its creative detail, in “Ellen Harvey: The Alien’s Guide to the Ruins of Washington, D.C.,” an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery through October 6, 2013.

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