Get lost in UCSD's Stuart Collection

Disobedience and exile

Ian Hamilton Finlay's UNDA
  • Ian Hamilton Finlay's UNDA
  • Image by Eric Hanson

When I taught creative writing at UCSD, I was impressed by the adventurous sculpture sited around campus — The Stuart Collection. Since campuses are gardens, these sculptures are garden sculptures, animating and conferring scale on the groves and meadows of academia.

Alexis Smith’s snake path

Alexis Smith’s snake path

In fact, some of these artworks refer symbolically to the first garden. Alexis Smith’s serpent forms a footpath — an “information highway” — whose tail coils around a bicycle path with the tight loops of a serpent by Dürer. The path snakes across a clearing and up to the main library. Along the way, one of the serpent’s loops holds a little Eden. I rest for a moment in this tiny paradise. It contains Bible plants, herbs and fruiting trees to nourish us garden dwellers: pomegranate (the original Tree of Knowledge), orange, fig, and a date palm. As an allegory, the sculpture is only as successful as each viewer’s relation to the Eden story, a tale that links knowledge to disobedience and exile. The path is beautifully executed, with eight-inch hexagon tiles for scales, blue and buff, and anyone who wants to transform a serpentine path into a serpent should come to campus and see how simply it can be done. After all, tiles look like scales.

I head over to one of the most famous installations on campus, Robert Irwin’s Blue Fence. It consists of two Vs of blue fencing that ride above the ground at varying heights between branches in a eucalyptus grove. It is so minimal I wonder in the first place if I am looking at art. This sculpture does not have the clear meaning of Alexis Smith’s snake; instead, it influences and restores the act of perception.

That’s a premise of much contemporary art, but what are these perceptions? It’s late afternoon, close to twilight, and fog is gathering. I’m on a path that runs between the two Vs. I feel a lift as I walk by the fences, or when I see other people walking beneath them. The Blue Fence takes all its cues from the grove,working with elements that already exist there. Shadows of branches play on the screens, poles appear and disappear like trunks,or like people as they walk through. The screens become transparent when I face them and then quite blue when I see them from an angle. I have the impression of surprisingly intense blue twilight hanging in the branches.

At midpoint in the grove the trees,which seemed random and natural, resolve into straight lines. I see distant hills between rows of trunks, a vista that is completely man-made. (The trees were intended to be harvested for railroad ties, I learn later.) Suddenly,mystery drains from the “nature” and devolves on the art. The sculpture seems more animated than the regimented trees. After all, it’s a fence that opens outward.

The trip through the grove is a journey that tips me gently out of my life— for what purpose? I am watching myself perceive. In this way the art quietly exalts the senses and returns me to myself. There is a link between clear seeing and the health of the spirit. To put it another way, when we say we have lost touch, what is it we have lost touch with? Our lives in the present, I would say.To replant myself in my senses gives me a moment that combines the quieting of expectation with the awareness of self. I want to reorient myself toward that moment— the moment, which is all I ever have.

The Stuart Collection holds an Ian Hamilton Finlay— he’s one of my heroes. Finlay is concerned with language and culture in the landscape.He is a Scottish avant-garde gardener whose own garden, Little Sparta, has been the destination of many an artist and gardener’s pilgrimage.His neoclassical park abounds in visual puns (such as birdbaths shaped like aircraft carriers) that are also antique allusions (the Romans had stone warships in their fountains). Finlay gives whole vistas a spin by, say, chiseling in stone the name Lorrain (the 18th-century landscape painter) like a signature at the “bottom”of the scene.

Ian Hamilton Finlay’s UNDA

Ian Hamilton Finlay’s UNDA

The Finlay at UCSD is also sited at the bottom of a vista. The work consists of five large stone blocks. On each block the Latin letters for wave, UNDA, are carved,along with an “actual” wave, an editor’s notation mark that resembles a backwards S and means “transpose these letters,”so a wave rolls through the word for wave. When I face the sculpture, it becomes the first of a series of horizons that step outward. The second horizon is a line of pines across the field, and the third would be the Pacific Ocean and sky, except now they are deepening into night. Language meets landscape,and the medium, stone, gives the meeting a strange permanence that I am inclined to resist a little. Why? I have to ask myself if language should be portrayed as though it’s as enduring as a landscape. Of course, the answer is yes, and maybe that’s why the word is written in Latin.

Terry Allen’s trees

Terry Allen’s trees

The Stuart Collection contains ten other pieces of sculpture. Terry Allen’s leadwrapped talking trees remind me of the musical fountains of the Villa d’Este and the talking statues of antiquity. Two of the trees stand in the eucalyptus grove. During the silence between tapes, a little boy keeps shouting, “Hello! Come on! Tell us a story!”while his sister shouts, “Wake up!”They are compelled to remain by the promise of music; they pick up sticks and start beating the trunk. Their father begins reciting the age-old litany, “Put the stick down,”as his son wheels around the tree.

Jenny Holzer’s Green Table.

Jenny Holzer’s Green Table.

It’s night, and I get completely lost in the fog. I beg two young women to help me find Jenny Holzer’s Green Table. They take me under their wing and ask carefully what I think of Niki de Saint Phalle’s Sun God — a 14- foot, brightly colored,crested bird. When I admit I don’t like it, they volunteer with relief that they think it’s “gross,” but they entirely approve of the Holzer, a monumental table of deep-green Canadian granite that acts as a reflecting pool for a melaleuca tree and some Torrey pines. Engraved into the table and benches are inscriptions of banal or enigmatic truisms, like SLOPPY THINKING GETS WORSE OVER TIME, which could pass as classical wisdom in these times.

I feel a little jealous. When I saw Holzer’s beautiful benches at the Guggenheim Museum and the Dia Foundation in New York, I wanted one for my own garden. The young women tell me that students like to gather here to do homework and eat lunch.

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