A friend and I went on a free, hour-long tour of Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center, and it was even more interesting than I’d imagined. It was an overview really, a comparison of the differences in art installations between the classical style of the late 18th century and the ultra-modern.

We started out at the front of the museum — which is also free and certainly merits another visit — with late 18th century pieces which had been commissioned and installed by the original donors.

Here’s Menander, one of the best known ancient Greek playwrights, who wrote plays focused on the lives of ordinary Athenians. His installation was meant to suggest an inclusivity to Stanford, the notion that anyone who merited admission could attend. And, interestingly, Stanford originally charged no tuition.

Opposite him is Faith, another regal figure bearing a book with a cross, signifying the importance of religion. And apparently Stanford was one of the few non-denominational institutions of its time.

I was rather thrilled to see this in real life after having come across it on the website. It’s a sort of organic installation by Andy Goldsworthy, who creates things that are destined to vanish (like an arrangement of leaves on a river, or writing on sand near the ocean). These stones were arranged — with the help of English wallers, who didn’t use any mortar but shaped the stones to fit — from the remnants of some buildings in Stanford that had been destroyed in the 1989 earthquake. Goldsworthy called it a cycle of energy: the stones are quarried from the earth, are part of a gravity-defying structure, are torn down again by seismic forces, and now are returned to the earth.

I always — along with most people of my age, I assume — think of Rodin as “classical”, even though he and the people who created the statues of Menander and Faith were contemporaries. But apparently he was too hot to handle for the founders; the sculptures were installed far after their time.

I’d never had a chance to get someone to explain Rodin to me. His main obsessions appeared to be a) bronze, and b) depressing scenes. Maybe with a sprinkling of c) nudity. His method was to do the original draftwork in clay, then preserve the work in plaster, then cast in bronze only upon demand (because bronze casting was expensive and was done on commission). After his death the French government — which he’d left his work to — realized that the value of the bronze casts could go down, so they limited the number of castings from each of his works to 12.

Rodin appears also to be a pragmatic kind of guy. If you look closely at the men above, you’ll see that their right leg — bent at the knee, the foot slanted — is replicated across all three men. As is the left leg. And the right arm. And the right leg.

In fact, all three men are the same man, arranged around the center point.

This was the most interesting part of the tour for both of us. This disembodied sculpture here is an exercise in both imagination and anatomy. The muscles of the back and shoulders and the position of the biceps are suggestive of the upper body being thrown back. The leg and back muscles are indicative of the knees being bent, maybe. The entire thing could suggest a man in the grip of a strong emotion.

Rodin had been inspired by the damaged Greek statues that he’d seen, and wanted to know how far he could go and how much he could subtract from a statue before the mood of the statue was lost.

None of us really knew what to think of this one. It’s by a guy who normally does very large installations and whose name reminds me of Arthur Weasley (maybe his was Beezly?) and he called this piece Horizon. Here it is, sitting innocuously, looking like a bench. Emotionally rather puzzling.

There is something very cosy about this piece of art. It’s clearly designed to curve around the bodies of people, and one can imagine a whole group of people huddled on it. It has a sense of bringing-together-ness and warmth. That wood, by the way, is second-growth Redwood.

I’m always impressed when art meets functionality, so this was one of my favorites.

From here on out, things got a little weird.

The creator of this piece really only wanted one thing: to generate controversy. Unfortunately when the piece was first put on display outside the cafe, water got into it and warped the paint. They then moved it into the shade, in a nook between the museum buildings, where no one would really even notice it.

Turns out that this is a giant concrete thing that was meant to be an inverted cube.

“Conceptual art” is what happens when the idea behind the artist’s mind is more important than the final product. At least, that’s what we were told, and that’s what we were certainly led to believe by this — a pile of granite (or marble; it wasn’t clear). Apparently the artist simply wrote out a set of instructions: “Take this pile of stones and arrange it in a circle of specific size”. Over the years the circle has been taken into the museum, taken out, taken up to the second floor, etc. So it’s obvious that the circle hasn’t remained the same at all.

So what’s the point? Is it that the people who interact with an installation also have a direct impact on the looks of it? What on earth did the workers think when they looked at this? Probably something like “Yeah, I wish could earn a pile of money by thinking up stupid ideas like this”.

When my friend pointed this one out to me — from the second story, where we were looking at the pile of stones — I told her it looked like a cancerous growth.

I wasn’t right. But then again, I wasn’t wrong either.

One inventive child suggested it was a dinosaur. Another said it might be an alien. In the language of the artist, it’s named “bird” — but this thing is apparently “an animal from the artist’s imagination”.

I’m not sure what the intention was here, except to mystify and/or annoy. The idea that a an institution would pay for something that wasn’t even very interesting to look at (subjectively speaking, of course) is slightly galling when that same institution is making quite a lot of money out of the tuition it charges.

But then again maybe this is the kind of thing that sparks debates about art and its relevance and leads to cool thesis work, so who am I to judge?


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