Building Landmarks

 

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It’s 4:30 p.m. on a lip-chappingly cold Wednesday during the intersession, and campus is dead. The normally bustling stretch of Speedway between 21st Street and Dean Keaton is deserted, so there’s no one to gawk at the jumbled pile of canoes, kayaks, and other small watercraft that is washed up in front of the Norman Hackerman Building on 24th Street.

A man in a cherry picker is guiding another boat, shiny and gray like the rest and dangling from a construction crane, onto the pile. Below, a woman in a red hard hat is directing the worker and his small team of colleagues. This is Nancy Rubins.

Born in Naples, Texas, Rubins is an internationally renowned sculptor. Her outdoor works, like the one she’s overseeing on campus, are explosive and impressive. The jagged conglomeration of 75 small boats being built in front of the Hackerman Building is like a growing crystal formation—raw and natural, but with a kind of kinetic energy that makes the whole thing look like a massive whitewater pileup.

The piece was brought to the university by the Landmarks program. With a mission to infuse the Forty Acres with new, public artworks beyond the lifelike old-man genre that has defined previous eras of university beautification, Landmarks uses a small percentage from new construction projects to bring art into—or around—each new or renovated space.

More than 35 works are sprinkled around campus. Some, like Anita Weschler’s quiet, evocative Victory Ball, are tucked away inside buildings while others, like Mark di Suvero’s soaring Clock Knot dominate entire blocks. From the looks of it, Rubins’ Monochrome will be the latter. Its final shape won’t be determined until the last bolts are put in place and the tangle of wiring holding it all together is complete this weekend, but the piece is already dynamic enough to make your chest well up. It spills out from just in front of the building and spews its armada in a dramatic arc toward the street.

rubins2One can’t help but wonder what a skyward-thrusting, Katamari-like collection of canoes really means. Because this is public art, the meaning is for the public—each and every one of us—to decide, according to Landmarks director Andrée Bober. There won’t be a plaque telling us exactly what to think, just the work itself.

Bober describes the program’s outlook as democratic. “We have our works visible 24/7. There’s absolutely no charge,” she says, “and there’s no mediation. There’s no one between you and the art.”

After all, meanings change over time. Artists move on, generations of students come and go, and what may have seemed like a specific piece of art—a symbol of sacrifice, for example—can transform into a symbol of the university itself.

The Littlefield Fountain and the Tower are iconic campus images, Bober says. She’s standing on Hackerman’s third floor patio, the Tower looming over her shoulder, looking down on the construction process as new boats are carefully swung into place. Like those icons, the Landmarks collection is meant to build deep associations with the campus. Just as previous generations of students look back on images of the Martin Luther King, Jr. statue on the East Mall or the facade of Gregory Gym, future alumni may fondly remember Sol LeWitt’s Stonehenge-like Circle with Towers, or James Turrell’s hypnotic Skyspace.

“The works we’re bringing to campus also begin to have that association,” she says. “Given the quality of these works and how dynamic they are, I think that’s something for us to really be proud of.”

Rubins’ Monochrome will be officially christened March 5 with a Q&A with the artist and a public reception.

Photos by Anna Donlan.

 

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