From sun gods to fallen stars to talking trees, a history of the inexplicable
As director of the Stuart Collection, Mary Beebe has had to find boulders to build a teddy bear, crash-land a house atop a building, and handle the controversy of emblazoning the seven deadly sins in neon around a building.
But Beebe wouldn’t want it any other way. In fact, it was the prospect of diverse challenges like these that made her willing to upend her life in 1981 and move from Portland, Ore. to take on the job of spearheading and developing a unique public art collection for the UC San Diego campus.
The Collection’s founder, James Stuart DeSilva, felt art had changed his life and opened his eyes to the creative world outside of his career in business. “I developed a passion to become involved with the artistic genius of our time,” he wrote in a 2001 essay. After a location search yielded UC San Diego and the exciting bonus of an educational function, in 1980 UC Regents approved the concept for the sculpture collection, and the Stuart Foundation donated an initial $1.4 million to bring public art to campus in the hopes that it could change the lives of others as well. The result is a breathtakingly diverse and still growing collection of works scattered over 1200 acres of campus. Installations range from Barbara Kruger’s Another sited on the walls and floor of the Price Center, to Alexis Smith’s 560-foot Snake Path slithering up to Geisel Library.
“The whole campus is a kind of garden,” says Mathieu Gregoire, project manager for the Collection. “To find these things in that garden is a part of
Got your map ready? Make it a day on campus with GPS pinpoints.
To create that magic naturally, Beebe doesn’t just buy existing art and place it on campus as if one were decorating a living room, but rather seeks out artists willing to create site-specific works. Artist Kiki Smith contributed the statue Standing in 1998, and Beebe references a quote from the artist as key to defining the Collection.
“[Smith] said, ‘It’s really important to have something inexplicable every day in your life.’ So that’s what the art is—it’s the possibility of the inexplicable, which I think is especially good in an educational environment,” says Beebe. Indeed, part of the Collection’s purpose is to make people ask questions like, What is art? or What makes that art?
“We are trying to provide memorable experiences that are there for people to think about,” says Beebe. “People will say to me about Robert Irwin’s Two Running Violet V Forms, ‘Oh, it’s the most poetic, romantic, beautiful thing.’ But then someone else will say about another work, ‘How can you put a bear out there?’ I say, Well, why not? It’s an astounding bear. It is permission to wonder, in a way.”
The creation of that astounding bear took an equally astounding effort, which began with the inspiration of artist Tim Hawkinson. “There are major boulders all around this region and that’s what inspired Tim—he would see animal shapes in them,” Beebe recalls. “Mathieu and I drove around and while we could see them, we couldn’t get to them. So we advertised, drove and researched more—it took us a year and a half before the Pala Band of Mission Indians told us about a quarry with boulders they had but were no longer interested in. We found the stone for the torso first, because you can’t look for arms and legs until you know what size torso you’re working with.”
As project manager, it is often up to Gregoire to figure out the nuts and bolts of how to physically create and install the art.
“None of these things have ever been built before, so each has to be designed from scratch. That’s a hard thing to do,” Gregoire says. “I remember Alexis Smith saying these things can be incredibly complicated but they need to look like they are the easiest thing in the world. It needs to look right and not like it was a struggle to install. It needs to look effortless.”
Yet there’s nothing effortless about a granite teddy bear whose 360,000-pound body parts came with no easy way for the artist to put them together. Then Gregoire had an idea to tap into UC San Diego talent.
“What’s wonderful is to be able to involve people outside of the arts in the making of an art project,” Gregoire says. “Bear is an example of that—we worked with the Jacobs School of Engineering and the Supercomputer Center to scan the rocks with laser equipment. The technology was brand new back then, and they 3-D printed scale models that we sent to Tim Hawkinson so he could play with them in a very real and direct way in his studio. It was a wonderful thing.”
Gregoire then had to enlist structural engineers to figure out how to make Bear earthquake proof (it has survived one big earthquake so far) and install it. Ever since, this “cuddly” granite teddy bear has been embraced by the students.
“It has gotten costumes, a cap and gown, and heart-shaped glasses for Valentine’s Day,” Beebe recounts with delight. “Every year a student engineering club asks me if they can do something, and for a couple of years they just did a pocket protector. I said, ‘Well that’s cute, but come on, you must be able to think of something more interesting. Get your brains cooking.’ Then they came up with Beary Potter, which was hilarious. I love the interaction. It’s an important part of all these works.”
Public art is of course meant to be touched and interacted with, but the purpose goes even further for Gregoire. “What the Collection does is expand the possibilities of that interaction because it also makes you look out and to pay attention to what’s around. The art is all about context, about stepping back or stepping in or experiencing it in a non-art way, like you are just walking by and suddenly it adds to your awareness.”
Take Michael Asher’s Untitled—a relatively simple drinking fountain, it is in some ways invisible in campus’ Town Square.
“Michael Asher’s piece has this quietness and small scale,” Gregoire says. “It doesn’t assert itself. But the more you zoom in on it the bigger it becomes. And the questions it asks are big questions. It’s a drinking fountain, but once you pay attention to that you question what it is doing, you notice how it aims at the historic military flagpole and then the plaque on the rock that describes the history of Camp Matthews, so one thing leads to another and another. The more you look, the more you see. The more you pay attention, the more there is to pay attention to.”
“It’s not a Trevi fountain,” adds Beebe. “It’s not a big civic fountain in that sense, but it’s a subtle fountain with limited water. In California water is scarce, so this is filtered, cool water in a measured dose. Asher’s Untitled is about all those subtleties.”
Other works in the Stuart Collection are impossible to miss, such as Do Ho Suh’s Fallen Star, which sits on the rooftop of Jacobs Hall looking as if it was dropped there by the same twister that tossed Dorothy’s house into the Land of Oz. The installation is so unorthodox there was actually a time when the artist wondered if anyone would actually let him “crash” a house into a building.
“We took a deep breath and said, ‘Let’s go for it,’” Beebe recalls. But while any viewer’s attention is naturally drawn to its seemingly precarious position on a rooftop, the work’s meaning only gets deeper as you enter the structure. It looks very much lived in, and is even furnished with personal items and photographs from people’s lives. By representing a true home, it brings to mind the idea of what “home” really is. This concept is important to Suh, having lived around the world, and the artist considered it a very appropriate subject for a university campus.
“There is this great distortion; it’s another world when you get inside,” Gregoire explains. “It’s not just a tilted house, it’s tilted in different directions so there’s a destabilizing effect. It’s decorated and furnished like a lovely little cottage but it has this crazy spatial distortion and for some people it makes them downright nauseated. But when you sit down and anchor yourself and start communicating with someone else, it’s like the other person gives you balance because you both obey the laws of gravity. It’s wonderful the way it’s human like that.”
Do Ho Suh’s installation may have been the most logistically challenging, but Bruce Nauman’s Vices and Virtues was certainly the most controversial. Initially the idea was to have the seven vices and virtues paired in blinking neon atop the Mandell Weiss Theatre, which sits on the edge of the campus.
“But it was 1983 and our neighbors were concerned and distressed,” Beebe recalled. “The letters that the Chancellor received—I’ve got a huge file—were mostly negative. The city councilman from La Jolla at the time called a press conference and said, ‘If the university is allowed to put the word LUST up there in neon, it will incite infidelity in the community.’ The newspaper called me for a comment and I said, ‘There are fourteen words, why did he choose LUST? He could have chosen prudence or faith. What does that say about him?’”
In the meantime a wealthy woman in Dallas tried to seize on the controversy and steal the project away, but the newly built Charles Lee Powell Structural Systems Laboratory proved to be the perfect location on the interior of the campus, where no neighbors might be tempted to sin.
The challenge with John Baldessari’s READ/WRITE/THINK/DREAM was neither logistic nor controversial, but rather in convincing the artist to contribute when he did not consider himself a sculptor. After much encouragement from Beebe, Baldessari initially thought of doing a piece involving big bronze doors but couldn’t find a suitable location on campus. Then he considered Geisel Library’s sliding doors—perhaps the most used doors on campus—and decided to go with images on glass. The doors’ primary colors playfully change as they slide over each other, and are complemented by photos of students and books chosen by Geisel librarians. The title is taken from words that Baldessari used as a professor at UC San Diego, UCLA and CalArts—he had rubber stamps to impress the four words upon students’ papers.
Though thousands of students pass through these doors each week, most may not realize they’re interacting with art. Other works like Richard Fleischner’s La Jolla Project and William Wegman’s La Jolla Vista View are sites that people actively seek out for events ranging from weddings to memorials and fairs. Although that was not part of the Collection’s original goals, it pleases Beebe to have people engage with the art in their own ways.
While these two installations have changed little over the years, Gregoire points to Nam June Paik’s Something Pacific as one of the works designed to transform over time.
“Nam June Paik wanted one part of this piece to be a live work. At some point all technology becomes obsolete, so he said that whatever new technology exists in 25 years, he wanted the students to be able to adapt and move the piece forward. Over the last year we worked with two classes in the electrical and computer engineering department to make that happen—the synthesizer [once an indoor wall of television screens] has been completely reinvented as a digital machine. The other aspect of this work is outdoor, where the Buddhas watch a very slow motion television show as their TVs decay and the grass grows up through them. So it lives into the future.”
Beebe is excited for the Stuart Collection itself to live into the future as well, yet she recognizes the support it takes to ensure that. “The Collection will eventually evolve into new forms as the world and the arts change,” she says. “But we need to increase the endowment so its mission can keep going.”
In the meantime, Beebe continues to lead the Stuart Collection and expand the creative, thoughtful fixtures that have become so much a part of the campus it’s almost too easy for students and the public to take them for granted. Yet as with all art, however, it is ultimately up to the viewer to make sure that doesn’t happen.
GET INVOLVED WITH THE STUART COLLECTION
The Stuart Collection at UC San Diego offers many ways to engage with the art and artistic community reflected in this feature. From becoming a member of the Friends of the Stuart Collection to supporting the endowment to volunteering as a docent inside Fallen Star, you can be a part of the inexplicable magic the Stuart Collection makes possible.
To learn more, visit STUARTCOLLECTION.UCSD.EDU
Web Bonus: Early ideas
Click on the images below for a slideshow or artist’s early proposals, sketches and concepts.