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UC Replants Crystal Garden

By Steven Rosen · September 7th, 2011 · The Big Picture
While University of Cincinnati’s relocation and reinstallation of Dennis Oppenheim’s “Crystal Garden” wasn’t meant as a memorial to the internationally renown sculptor, it ends up being that. The decision to make the work a much more prominent piece of UC’s itself-internationally-renowned campus landscape was arrived at in November 2010, before Oppenheim’s January death from liver cancer at age 72. The New York-based sculptor had even signed off on the move at the end of December.

“Crystal Garden” now surrounds the turnaround at the campus’ main eastern entrance on University Circle. It greets arrivals to campus and can even be seen by those passing by on Jefferson Avenue. Since installed in 2003, it had been semi-hidden, in a quadrangle off to the side of one end of University Pavilion. 

“The main reason we moved it was to give it a more prominent position on campus,” says Weston Munzel of UC’s architect’s office. “It looks spectacular in its new location. It really catches the eye.”

This sculpture isn’t the most dramatic or visually compelling of Oppenheim’s work, perhaps because its impact dissipates from being in three separate sections.

But its mysterious, otherworldly shapes and colorful formations can now be much better appreciated by the public. And better known — it instantly becomes one of the major pieces of contemporary public sculpture in a city that sadly has way too few.

Oppenheim’s origins were in conceptual and earth art and  body/performance — he came out of the same 1960s movements that gave us Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson, Chris Burden and Vito Acconci. But as he moved to public commissions, his work grew more approachable and even playful. He could be positively Oldenburgian, as in his giant “Safety Cones” or “Electric (Hershey) Kisses.”  

But there could be a heck of a political bite to his work. I was in Calgary in 2008 when his “Device to Root Out Evil” debuted in a neighborhood park. An upside-down country church, made of glass, steel and aluminum, had been overturned with its steeple buried in the ground. 

The point was open to interpretation, but some took offense, and the piece — which debuted at Venice Biennale in 1997 — had led a peripatetic existence until Calgary accepted it. On the day I went to see it, crowds were forming around it. It had instantly become a major art attraction.

Kathy Signorino of the Ohio Arts Council, which administered Oppenheim’s original commission for UC, says the “Crystal Garden” commission was $270,000. It was the art component for the new University Pavilion. 

The new location actually attempts to discourage walking through the tunnel. It’s on grass — there is no walkway going through it. Because of the passage’s narrowness and low height, UC didn’t want to highlight it for pedestrians, Munzel says. 

“It encompassed part of a sidewalk in its old position, it wasn’t quite wide enough to straddle the entire sidewalk,” he says. “And so it’s kind of a safety issue to keep it not on the beaten path.”

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosen@citybeat.com



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