Public art is always contested — it would be preposterous to think that a community of more than 1500 students, let alone faculty, staff, and visitors to campus, could ever agree on the aesthetics of a large-scale, public artwork. However, the Crum Creek Meander sculpture, situated between Magill Walk and Sharples, which is scheduled to remain standing until early next year, is quite controversial and, if the numerous jokes made at its expense are any indication, widely disliked. It is referred to as “the car wash” in student parlance, it was the subject of this year’s Engineering prank and its plastic sheeting tied into knots last Saturday night. The entire community may not reach consensus on a work of public art. But it certainly does not have to be like this.
While there were a great number of people involved in the decision-making processes which led to the erection of the sculpture, students and the vast majority of community members were not consulted at any point. This seems counterintuitive — shouldn’t those who are most affected by the work, those who must look at it every single day during their regular movement across campus, have some say in public works such as these? In the future, community members outside of the circles of those working through the List Gallery, the Cooper Foundation, or the Studio Art faculty, should be given further chances for input as to long-term, large-scale installations which deeply affect the shape and appearance of the campus.
This could be a moment for fascinating collaborative work between the renowned talents which the List Gallery and the Cooper Foundation bring to the college each year and the creative, thoughtful students and faculty working in the art department on campus. Such a joining of forces could produce a thought-provoking artwork that highlights community values and concerns, rather than a mysterious collection of materials, ripe for practical jokes and mockery, which seems to have fallen from the sky and landed outside of Sharples.
In the immediate future, perhaps students would appreciate the work more if there were any kind of information available closer to the sculpture. While the List Gallery has done an admirable job of trying to make the Meander accessible to the community, bringing the artist to campus several times for lectures, executing a thoughtful and informative exhibition in the Gallery and even inviting students to help with the construction of the piece, many who could not attend these events or who are outside of the artistic circles on campus remain baffled by the sculpture. In fact, the Crum Creek Meander has a great deal of meaning which makes it valuable and interesting and could redeem what appears at first to be a disturbingly artificial, jarring appearance which does not truly fit with the rest of campus’ natural aesthetic. It is a shame that after a labor- and thought-intensive process, much of the meaning of the work is lost on community members. Surely placing a sign near the work, explaining some of the artist’s intentions and thought processes (and crediting the piece to a crew of dedicated volunteers from the borough and Stacy Levy, the renowned environmental artist responsible for the sculpture), could make some of this meaning clear, and stop students tying themselves (and the sculpture) into knots.