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Strange Art, Stranger People

A festival in Crystal City showcases the peculiar.

In one cubicle, a giant white heart rests in an open coffin filled with soil. Another cubicle is inhabited by a chair made entirely of soda can tabs.

Out in the hallway hundreds of tiny ants climb up the walls and make an ungodly hissing noise. And in the break room are a dozen or so totally nude people staring expressionless off into space.

This is a very strange office.

But that’s because it’s the site of Artomatic, the semi-annual arts extravaganza that showcases hundreds of Washington-area artists of all stripes by putting on exhibitions in abandoned spaces.

This year is Artomatic’s first foray into Virginia. It has taken over an Arlington building, one of many formerly occupied by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and turned it into a smorgasbord of art that runs the gamut from beautiful to disturbing to silly to simply bizarre.

All this is taking place in Crystal City, an area that has experienced a recent evacuation of long-time employers.

"Four years ago people were talking about the tumbleweeds that would be going down Crystal Drive," Mitchell Schear said. He is the president of Vornado/Charles E. Smith, the real estate company that owns much of Crystal City and donated two floors of one of its buildings to Artomatic. "Now we’ve been able to attract lots of people here."

AND THAT MIGHT HAVE been an understatement.

On Artomatic’s opening night last week, thousands of people shuffled back and forth between the crowded 6th and 8th floors of the building to take part in the scene.

This certainly event didn’t have the staid demeanor of traditional art exhibitions. Rather, many of the pieces emphasized participation of the viewer and some even required it.

One installation, an homage to superstition and bad luck, consisted of a ladder which event goers were encouraged to walk under where they would find an umbrella to open and salt to spill. They could then attempt to break a mirror with a mallet that was attached to the ladder.

Another piece consisted of four artists seated at a table with four attendees seated across from them. The artists would begin to draw portraits of their faces but then, after a certain amount of time, they would pass the uncompleted portrait to another artist who would continue it.

This happened several times and it eventually produced four different interpretations of a face melded into one.

Many of those who attended the event’s opening night seemed content to wander around through the nearly 90,000 square feet of exhibits while sipping a beer or chatting with a friend.

However, some were more active in their art intake and dressed up in lavish costumes.

Ken Roseman, a short, middle-aged man with thick glasses, wore a red mini dress and a black wig and called himself "The Hippy Cheerleader."

Gordon McCracken of Fairfax wore a leopard-print suit, complete with fedora, over a psychedelic blue and yellow vest while he rested on one of the few chairs in the building that was not a piece of art unto itself.

Among the rest of the visually chaotic milieu, few seemed to notice he was there.

IN THE END, the event, which will continue through May, was a triumph for the Crystal City Business Improvement District.

The collection of area businesses, led by director Angie Fox, succeeded in luring Artomatic out of the district for the first time in its eight-year existence.

"I said [to Artomatic] ‘What will it take to bring [the festival] to Crystal City?’" Fox recalled. "In less than four months we moved a lot of mountains."

Arlington County Board Chairman Paul Ferguson (D) said that the event will not only attract thousands of people to the county but may also facilitate in finding a new owner for the vacated building.

"The views here are stunning," he said as he stood near a window that looked directly out onto Reagan National Airport and the Potomac River. "Arlingtonians can come here and one day maybe they can imagine being here too."

Board Member Chris Zimmerman (D) said what was truly great about Artomatic is that it will change people’s perceptions of Crystal City and of Arlington as a whole.

"Art is important because it has the power to change the way we see the world," he said. "The goal of this [Artomatic] is to change the way we see this part of the world."