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Provost invites discussion on hair sculpture

By Brian Rosenberg

Associate Provost for the Arts Ellen T. Harris met with approximately 100 students last night to discuss the Student Center Sculpture Project. The proposed sculpture, a shaman's hat made of community members' hair, has been the subject of controversy for several months.

A committee made up of faculty and students chose Mags Harries, a well known Cambridge artist, to produce a work for the Student Center. Harries proposed the shaman's hat concept. Harris, who was not on the committee, said it was unusual that the committee picked an artist rather than a project, and added that "Mags submitted herself, while the other artists submitted projects."

Harris began yesterday's discussion with a short clarification of her part in the selection process. She emphasized that no decisions were final, and that no money had been spent. Harris said she had specifically asked Harries not to come to the meeting, so that people could comment more freely.

The majority of students at the discussion were opposed to the current proposal, which one participant demonstrated by asking for a show of hands. Another student said that over half of the roughly 1100 people asked to sign a petition to cancel the project had done so.

The discussion focused on just a few topics, including the process involved in choosing a sculpture, the issue of what students want the project to be, and objections to the proposal itself.

Several students at the meeting expressed dissatisfaction with the level of student input in the selection of a project. Seth A. Gordon '91 said he thought "the final decision should reflect the general will of the community."

But Stephen D. Immerman, director of special services and a member of the committee that selected Harries, said "too many people [choosing the project] leads to art that is homogeneous."

Harris echoed this idea, saying, "Majority rule will get you art that is insipid." She added, however, that she would support a "more open process."

Another key issue that emerged is what students want from the project. Many who attended the meeting felt that they were "challenged enough in lecture hall" and that they wanted something "decorative, brightly colored, [and] open." Many felt that the atrium had been designed to be open and that putting a "dark, dense" sculpture in it would ruin that effect. Other students argued that art must be thought-provoking, and not necessarily aesthetically pleasing.

Students object to

hair as a medium

Students made several objections to the proposal itself, most notably about the use of hair. One student said it seemed to be a "ritual hair shearing" and that it seemed as if students would be "giving up [their] humanness for technology." Another student agreed, saying, "an Institute-wide hair collection seems to be a kind of sacrifice."

Another common objection was that the hair conjured up images of the Holocaust. Andrew M. Greene '91 was "reminded of a violin with strings of human hair that I saw in Yad Vashem [a Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem]."

In response, Harris said that "all the images of hair [Harries] presented to us were violent, [and] the sculpture gains power from that."

Another objection was that the proposal was inappropriate for the Student Center. Edward McCluney, director of the Student Art Association and a member of the selection committee, said he thought the proposed work was "in the wrong place, and is the wrong size."

One student added that "a hat won't look natural," while a third called the sculpture "art on a pedestal" and suggested that a work more conducive to "discovery" would be preferable. Supporters of the sculpture emphasized that the work would not dominate the atrium and that the entire frame would not be covered with hair.

Harris said that she would not "walk out of [the meeting] knowing what will happen" to the sculpture. She added that if the current proposal is rejected, she will "feel bound to go to Mags to ask her to rethink another project. I have a sense of obligation to the process that has already taken place."

Other points brought up at the discussion included what many attendees saw as a discriminatory attitude towards MIT. "People say `You go to MIT, you don't know anything about art' and that's insulting," said one student.

Hacks on the sculpture were also discussed. "People will hack this," said one student. Harris said her favorite was the "Road Runner Hack," which involved a pile of bird seed placed under a model of the sculpture to lure the Road Runner under the cage-like structure.