New Sculpture at the Matthew Knight Arena is High, Wide – and Deep
We get only a flickering glimpse of reality, Plato wrote two thousand years ago in a famous passage now called the Allegory of the Cave. The images we see are like the shadows of moving figures cast by a fire onto the back wall of a cave.
An interesting idea, for sure, but who would expect to find an evocation of that philosophy in the new Matthew Knight Basketball Arena at the University of Oregon? But here it is, a splendid new sculpture by world-renowned artist Janet Echelman. The name of the sculpture? “Allegory.”
What you first see as you enter the northeast curve of the Arena are huge circular nets billowing overhead. Green, white, blue, they encircle space the way a seine encircles herring, the way a spiral galaxy encircles stars, the way the sweeping arms of a giant Douglas-fir tree gather the sky. But as you move through the hallway, the nets themselves seem to disappear, replaced by shadows of the nets thrown onto the wall. Then the glimpse of the shadows fades, and again, there are the nets themselves wafting toward the ceiling high above.
Sculptor Janet Echelman is a lively, smiling woman dressed all in black. She stands in the Arena hallway, studying the installation, punching numbers into her cell phone to communicate with the light engineer who controls the lights from his studio in Boston. “A sculpture should be thrilling to look at,” she says. “But a lasting sculpture has to be more than that. It has to hint at some connections that we don’t entirely understand.”
True to her vision, there is no point of view from which an observer can see all of the sculpture at once. While the nets and knots are three-dimensional, what you see on the wall is as flat and devoid of color as the disks seen through a microscope. On the other hand, maybe the nets and knots are four dimensional, because they change color over time, as Duck fans walk through the Arena’s hall, triggering sensors that alter the lights.
And what is that reality that we glimpse only dimly in Plato’s flickering light? We can’t know, Plato wrote. That is the necessary imperfection of human perception. But it’s fun to speculate.
“People might think of the interconnectedness of the game,” Janet muses. “The trajectory of the basketball weaves nets that connect the five players on the floor, who are knitted into patterns of family and fans.” Alternatively, here in the great forests of Oregon — suggested both in the pattern of the Arena’s hardwood floors and in the upsweeping nets of the sculpture – observers may think of the interconnectedness of the ecosystems that sustain us, the great branching webs of life.
The weekend before Janet came to Eugene for the opening of “Allegory,” she visited the ancient forests of the H. J. Andrews Research Forest in the headwaters of the McKenzie River. On ropes, she ascended a hundred feet and thirty feet up a five hundred year-old Douglas-fir tree. There, in low evening light cast through the tangled mist- and moss-draped boughs, she could see the shadows of the nets and knots of the forest ecosystem, folded and draped over the encircling hills.
Her hope is to return to the inspiration of the forest. But first, she is completing a design for a translucent building-sized sculpture to fly across a linear urban park in Boston. And she is designing a great flame-like net whose knots map the spread of radioactivity from the Fukushima explosion. In fact, her Boston studio is seemingly wall-papered with designs and commissions and ideas in progress.
“When developing an idea,” Janet said, “I envision the ideal manifestation of the idea” – a method that would bring a smile of recognition to Plato’s old marble face. “I try to imagine my goal as a reality, and then work backwards to figure out all the steps I need to make it so. We all have the potential to do that,” she insists, “but it’s a skill that takes practice.”
These are words that UO’s students and student-athletes can take to heart. It’s not only a sculpture that is taking shape in the university’s Arena, but the dreams and aspirations of generations of young people, who will envision an ideal and then work to make it real.
More about Janet Echelman’s sculptures and artistic philosophy can be found at www.echelman.com.