New Student Center art to be a hairy affair
By MARK ROBERTS
THOSE OF YOU who have been to Porter Square T station will know the cascade of lost gloves, frozen in bronze, that tumbles down the central barrier of the long escalator, with others dotted around the rest of the station. Visitors to the Haymarket vegetable stalls may have seen, nestled amidst the refuse and discarded paper, pieces of garbage cast in bronze and set in the asphalt. A fortunate few who ride the Red Line may have happened one day to travel in the car in which one upright pole appears to have been squeezed so hard by a desperate traveler that the metal still bears the impression of his hand.
Closer to home, you may have been intrigued by a series of cryptic ads running in The Tech, or by the recent appearance in the Wiesner Gallery in the Student Center of an eclectic collection of photographs and artifacts. The thread that connects all of these is the presence of Mags Harries, a local artist who has been closely associated with "public art" since her arrival in Cambridge 15 years ago.
Her newest project, on which she is just embarking on the research phase, is to create a major work of art to be installed in the recently renovated Stratton Student Center. The work is being done under MIT's "one percent for the arts" policy, whereby one percent of the budget for any <>
new building or major renovation work goes to fund the creation of works of art for the site.
A committee, with members from the List Visual Arts Center, the Campus Activities Complex, and various organizations within the Student Center, sought proposals from hundreds of artists, which were narrowed down to three for further consideration. The three artists gave presentations on their ideas, and what won the committee to Harries' proposal was the extent to which she wished to involve students in the creation of the piece.
Rather than submit a finished design, she proposed to spend a developmental stage on site, soliciting ideas from as wide a selection of the MIT community as possible. A belief that art depends upon a context for its meaning was what originally led her to create public installations, and her sensitivity to the importance of the Student Center in MIT life, as a place distinct from the classrooms and administrative buildings, fueled this desire to involve the community in the creation. Furthermore, she had a striking idea for literally incorporating a part of the student body into the final piece: The proposed medium for the work is hair, donated by students in what the artist hopes will become a communal ritual haircutting.
"Hair has long been a symbol of power," said Harries when I spoke to her about her plans. Samson's strength depended on his hair, the possession of a lock of hair can bind the holder to a lover, or give him or her the power to practice magic upon the person from whom it comes, and cultures across the world and throughout time have used hair as a means of expression, of love and rebellion, commemorated in songs and stories. We ourselves lavish enormous time and attention and money on what our hair looks like. The binding together of hair from throughout MIT will serve as an emblem of empowerment of the students, as well as standing testimony to their rich diversity, in its mix of hues and textures.
The hair will most probably not be instantly recognizable as such, however. In addition to the collection process to gather materials that precedes the creation of many of her pieces, witty transformation has often been an important theme in the work of Harries, who once took a chainsaw to stacks of books in order to turn them back into trees. The central image in the "hair power object" is to be a shaman's hat: "Shamans were like the first scientists . . . and the hats they wore, with four corners, which would be tied up together, were like a court jester's -- the wiseman and the fool speaking truths."
The hair power object will not yield to a single, straightforward rationalization, however. "Ultimately I would like it to be a very curious object . . . drawing people to it like a magnet," said Harries. Both she and Associate Provost for the Arts Ellen T. Harris feel the importance of art at MIT as something beyond the scope of the analytic skills taught here, augmenting those skills by challenging the viewer to reach new, broader perspectives on their life and what they see around them.
Certainly the element of challenge in Harries' proposal is strong, and all those concerned with the project are sensitive to this, and the passionate feelings the piece is likely to arouse. Harris described the concerns people have voiced over the proposal as being of two basic kinds: practical worries about the health and safety aspects <>
of the piece and deeper seated emotional objections to the use of hair.
The health and safety questions were tackled first, and answered to the satisfaction of representatives from Physical Plant as well as the Student Center. The hair will be treated to ensure it is clean, securely attached so that it doesn't moult, and is after all a highly enduring material -- ancient mummies are discovered with full heads of hair. "There's more hair walking around the Student Center on people's heads than there will be in this art object," said Harris, "and if you find a hair in your soup it will have come from the person in line in front of you rather than drifting off the piece."
The more emotional reactions will need to be dealt with differently, and this is in part what the present research phase is for. "We invited Mags to come to the Student Center on several days, to work in the space, and engage the students," said Harris. Harris herself is "personally very enthusiastic" about the project, but she "simply [does] not believe that one does something like this without talking to the community." To this end she has arranged for Harries to talk about her work this evening at 7 pm in the Student Center Mezzanine Lounge, to be in the Student Center all day tomorrow and on Thursday, with a general forum at 7 pm on Thursday in Twenty Chimneys. She is well aware of the resentment that still lingers towards "Transparent Horizons," about which the community was never properly consulted, and insists that this project will only go forward if students are enthusiastic.
"It is not in my interest to do anything without integrity," Harries said. "People should go by my past work, and give me the benefit of the doubt" before making up their minds about this proposal. Harris echoed this sentiment: "The work will only proceed if their is community support, but people should hear her speak. . . . I like the way she thinks -- her vision . . . her vision has affected my vision."