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2022-04-30 16:06

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Review: Stanford Plinth Project says ‘Hello’ with installation
Letha Ch’ien February 24, 2022Updated: February 24, 2022, 5:35 pm

Art installers Jeff Schwartz, Teilor Goode and Esteban Granados with Agile Fine Arts move the last piece of “Hello,” by Xu Zhen.
Photo: Provided by Stanford University
Stanford University has launched its new sculpture space with a winner. Xu Zhen’s “Hello,” a 15-foot-tall, slithering snake of a Corinthian column, has arrived as the inaugural sculpture for the new Stanford Plinth Project, and it’s fantastic.

For “Hello,” Xu Zhen, born in Shanghai in 1977, began with the form of a classical Corinthian column, the kind you might see as part of an ancient Greek temple. But Xu has twirled the form like spaghetti on a fork, transforming the column into a coiled snake. Made of cast bronze, the sculpture imitates stone with its coat of pinkish-gray paint and artfully feigned crumbling abrasions.

“Hello” will reside on the concrete platform of the Stanford Plinth for two years. After that, a new sculpture will take its place for a biennial installation. The Stanford Plinth Project, modeled on the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square that showcases contemporary sculpture in temporary exhibitions, hopes to use public art to “activate dialogue and interaction,” said Matthew Tiews, associate vice president for Campus Engagement and chair of Stanford’s Public Art Committee.

The Stanford Plinth sits in Meyer Green, an open space that became a crossroads when Meyer Library was demolished for seismic reasons in 2015. The site enjoys easy visibility from all directions and is occupied by picnickers, students lugging music instruments and families.

“There’s something really special about sculpture and art in public places that becomes integrated into the fabric of everyday life and that’s available to everybody,” said Associate Professor Nicholas Jenkins, who serves on the Public Art Committee.

Given the number of people I witnessed interrupting their journeys to walk up the plinth’s stairs and peer at “Hello,” he’s right.

As you walk up the stairs, you find yourself face to face with a foliated Corinthian capital, its central cavity, rather than the beguiling eyes of a snake, staring back at you. It’s that moment of mutual encounter Xu wants to provoke; that’s why the sculpture is titled “Hello.” The cavity represents the unknown. In an interview with The Chronicle facilitated by interpreter Lanquin Huang, Xu said he likes to think of the sculpture as slithering into Stanford’s manicured campus for a visit.

And what of its slightly menacing snakelike quality? Oh, that’s intentional.

“The snake itself can be read as one’s judgment of an unknown civilization,” Xu said.

“Hello,” by Xu Zhen, installed on the Meyer Green plinth.
Photo: Instillation by Xu Zhen / Andrew Brodhead
Some people will read the snake as friendly; others will see it as off-putting. Throughout world history, civilizations have often defined themselves in opposition, one positioning itself against the Other. But such a stance, Xu said, “only makes you and the Other more and more far away” from one another, inhibiting conversation and growth.

Xu’s work has long plumbed cultural and historical interactions. In 2014’s “Eternity” series, he combined a Tang Dynasty seated Buddha with an inverted Aphrodite of Knidos in place of the Buddha’s head. Another sculpture featured a Tang Dynasty warrior holding Brancusi’s “Sleeping Muse” bronze head. Xu resists critics who describe his work as “culture clash,” deeming their interpretation simplistic and “quite boring.”

“Hello” encourages people to talk to each other, but Xu isn’t naively optimistic about cross-cultural dialogue. His snakelike form also carries connotations of Eve’s serpent from the Garden of Eden.

“It can be understood as a temptation,” he explained. “It’s tempting people to look across differences” — a pitfall of cultural engagement, according to Xu, who disagrees with conventional wisdom.

Artist Xu Zhen in 2016.
Photo: Courtesy the artist and James Cohan
Xu notes that a lot of cross-cultural communication has occurred when one civilization has invaded another. Still, he describes his columnar snake as “cute.” Its posture seems less intent on a strike and more quizzically concerned with an examination of you as you examine it. It’s hard to be afraid of a predator so inquisitive.

It’s no coincidence that Xu employs the form of the classical fluted column, which has a long history as a symbol of Western civilization. From their original Greek and Roman settings, they have migrated to the facade of the London National Gallery, the U.S. Capitol building and, as the artist points out, to bathhouses, brothels and karaoke joints in China, where fantasies of libertine license “make you feel as if you’re living as a white person or just a person in the West.”

All of the associations with knowledge, imperialism and culture make placing “Hello” on an august college campus a little cheeky, but where better to contemplate the weight of history and peer into the unknown?

Make sure to say hello before Xu’s snake slithers off.

“Hello,” by Xu Zhen, on the Meyer Green plinth with Green Library and Hoover Tower in the background.
Photo: Provided by Stanford University
Stanford Plinth Project presents Xu Zhen’s “Hello”: Sculpture installation. On view through 2024. Free. Meyer Green, Stanford University, 557 Escondido Mall, Stanford. 650-723-2300.

Letha Ch’ien
Letha Ch’ien is an assistant professor of art history at Sonoma State University.
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