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The new abnormal: ‘Untitled’ by Ruth Asawa

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Attending the Cantor’s “First Friday” in March was among my last noteworthy experiences at Stanford. At the time, stopping by the Cantor was just another way to spend a Friday evening. From my vantage point now, however, it has come to stand in for my commencement. Poetic and instructive, it presents me a means through which to think about my present condition, graduation and what it meant to be a Stanford student in the first place.

For one, it represented the last time I was able to convene with friends among others. There is nothing really unique or profound in this feeling of loss, except that it has sharpened my memories of and feelings toward that First Friday in March and Ruth Asawa’s “Untitled.”

But for another, it coincided with my life during a respite of unsuspecting calm before a storm. Unwittingly, I was about to be hastened out of the simultaneous stimulation and stupor of my undergraduate years. Asawa’s sculpture in particular furnished me with fertile material for grappling with what this could mean. 

Rounding out Week 9 of winter quarter, it was a languid time for both the quarter and the year at large. Immediately before me remained a plethora of exams and papers and projects to finish. And beyond these upcoming deadlines, I still had yet to figure out my post-graduation life. As such, I felt acutely the sensation of being suspended. Completion perpetually retreated out of view, whether it came to short pieces of writing, term projects or my thesis, even as I was ever aware of the fact that I was inching toward the finish line. All the same, the feeling of suspension presented nothing new to me. In my view, the task of plotting my future had to be procrastinated, not only because there were too many deadlines immediately before me, but also too much that I still demanded from college. Each time I caved to the pressure to apply to jobs and internships in college, I went about it half-heartedly; the investment required to plan ahead had always felt like a betrayal to what was at hand. The present, anyways, always felt more absorbing to me than preparing for a more or less unpredictable future. Wrongheaded as this disposition can be, at an instinctual level, I have never been able to convince myself of the necessity of making arrangements for the next thing down the line. 

This status of being in between — fall and spring, Week 9 and the end of the quarter, college and the “real world” — could not have been far from my mind as I stepped into the Cantor. I arrived with a few friends just as Viennese Ball dancers closed their number, and we crowded on the imperial staircase in the foyer of the museum. Heightening the unease, we had just received an email earlier that night notifying us that classes for the rest of the quarter would be taught online. This notification had followed Stanford’s latest response to COVID-19, which was to restrict all gatherings of more than 150 people. 

My run-in with Ruth Asawa’s hanging wire sculpture “Untitled” was an impromptu one. Having been to the Cantor various times, my friends and I decided to join a tour last-minute for a different experience. Our guide, in turn, parked us in front of Asawa’s sculpture. The sculpture, which is untitled and resides in an inconspicuous corner of the modern and contemporary art gallery on the ground floor, isn’t necessarily something I would otherwise consider at length. Abstract and geometrically controlled, it would have most likely struck me on a solo visit as formalist and cold. Herded before the sculpture on a tour, though — all 10 or 15 of us — I could admit there was a particular grace to its understated solitude. It could have come straight out of a 3D printer, with its satisfyingly irregular pattern and its perfect symmetry. It resembled viscous fluid oozing to the ground, forming interlocking lumps on its way down. Extraordinarily, as I’d later confirm with some digital sleuthing, the entirety of the sculpture was crocheted from one uninterrupted piece of wire. We were prodded by our guide to share what came to mind when we looked at it.

The shadows, one of my friends contributed. The projections of the hanging sculpture onto the wall next to it and the platform beneath it, some dark and others barely perceptible, created a dramatic interplay between the object and its reflection. Additionally, the spinning of the sculpture, one way and then the other, escaped detection until I saw that the artwork could contain both the three-dimensional object and its two-dimensional shadow. I registered a delicate dance: The material object led as its immaterial imitation followed.

Water, a man behind me offered. My first impression of the object, too, was that it resembled water. In particular, the form captured by Asawa’s sculpture could have been forged from the blueprint of a high shutter-speed, zoomed-in photo of a leaky faucet. From this perspective, each onion-shaped bulb in the sculpture was a distinct, pregnant droplet of water. These numerous distinct droplets refused to coalesce into one and defied downward gravitational pull.

Suspension, another friend jumped in to add a moment later. Our tour guide asked her to explain that word, so following a bit of a theatrical pause, she said, “When I think about suspension, I think about being between two things. So when I look at this sculpture, I wait for it to fall. You know that it’s going to crash down — you just don’t know when.”

Our tour guide reappraised the sculpture, and disagreed: “Well, that’s possible. Still, every day on my drive home, I go up the mountains. For a while, I kept driving past yellow caution signs that said, ‘Danger: Falling Rocks.’ So one day, on my way back, I parked my car on the side of the road and got out.”

He cocked his head to the side while maintaining his boyish grin. With a look that gave off the impression that he had gotten the better of all of us, he concluded, “I waited for a rock to fall. It never did. So, I don’t know. I mean, does it have to fall?” The pseudo-philosophical allegory he posed earned a few chuckles from our group. I was amused, but I couldn’t take it very seriously.

I’ve convinced myself that the scene I’ve so far described — the context, the sculpture itself and the dialogue — is a parable, if a parable can be as inconclusive as this experience was. Like many, I have come to understand my life during this period of time as one of suspension. My own life is currently suspended, because I am taking a leave of absence and putting my plans for graduation on hold. In a sense, I have been “suspended” from school, though so have all my classmates and friends. More generally, the media is widely construing the economy and society at large, too, as currently on pause. Concerts and sporting events have been postponed, and restaurants, libraries and museums are indefinitely closed. As such, it has quickly become a cliché figure of speech to wonder when our lives will resume.

Like any attempt to compare two dissimilar things, drawing similarities between the sculpture and COVID-19 is bound to reach its limits. The concept of suspension constitutes only a crude link between Asawa’s wire sculpture and global pandemic, and that is because there is much more to the sculpture than the mere fact that it dangles from the ceiling. In the short time we spent in front of the sculpture — maybe 15 minutes at best — our small group generated a profusion of meanings, which still was only a sliver of the ever-expanding universe of meanings the life of a sculpture engages. Since leaving campus, I have entertained more. For instance, if museums were permissive spaces for the entirety of the human sensorium, they would allow visitors to touch their objects. If this were indeed the case, few visitors would resist the offer before Asawa’s sculpture to nudge, spin, squeeze — in short, indelibly touch it. The only picture of Asawa’s “Untitled” at the Cantor I could find online — a grainy picture snapped with two middle-aged women posed awkwardly next to it — displayed in front of me now, the haptic allure of the sculpture has never been greater. There is, also, a never-ending array of historical analogies the sculpture can engender. The wire sculpture could point to the mushroom clouds generated by the blast of an atom bomb. Or the dynamic movement between the “inside” and the “outside” of the sculpture could reflect the instability of the nuclear arms race. The use of wire could be a reference to Japanese internment camps, which Asawa and her family had been detained in. The form of the sculpture could emulate organic forms which were being discovered and better understood during her lifetime.

And historical comparisons are just the tip of the iceberg. With language, we can describe the sculpture, make sense of negative space and explain the form. Without language, the sculpture can be juxtaposed against other artworks (which is what curators do); it can appear in a video or a movie; it can be placed outside, where it might be left to weather the elements. Suspension is an inadequate descriptor because it is not the only descriptor. And descriptors are often — no, always — inadequate too.

Now we can double back on the last two paragraphs: The sculpture exceeds suspension, but so do our lives under COVID-19. As the shock of the rapid succession of events in early March peters out and assimilates into the both intelligible and mundane reality of daily life, the framework of suspension has become insufficient. If the narrative of suspension is that of standstill, everything around us portrayed as inert and static, then this narrative does not explain our reality; it totalizes and hence obscures our reality. Most of our day-to-day lives attest to the enormous changes that online classes, shelter-in-place and global pandemic have produced, desirable or not. We are negotiating new conflicts with age-old parents, averting eye contact with passersby on sidewalks in previously unimaginable ways and developing new procedures for checking out at the grocery store. These scratch the surface of the transformations underway, and still, these have all already altered the basic texture of our lives. 

Childhood fantasies like “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” dramatize the discoveries which can be made when our lives are suspended in one way or another; shuttled off to the country and removed from their bustling school and city lives, C.S. Lewis’ protagonists tumble into a whole new mythical landscape. Their new world is not an escapist one devoid of conflict and strife, but rather just a strange one. Our lives right now are not so different in this sense. Lewis’ characters, who audaciously take on the fearsome and awesome world they arrive in, emphasize that assimilating difference in our lives into a rote “new normal” is colorless and lifeless. There is, or perhaps need be, nothing normal about life under any kind of suspension — so long as normal signifies conformity and standardization. After all, what is life but one great suspension? We have no claim to what came before we were born and what comes after we die, but everything that comes in between is emphatically, strangely, abnormally ours. 

Of course, to believe that suspension of our particular sort will continue forever is delusional. We don’t need to pull over on a mountain pass, waiting for chunks of rock to crash onto the road, to know that something of the sort will eventually occur. At present, it’s anybody’s guess as to how Ruth Asawa’s “Untitled,” hanging in the corner of a blank-walled room in the Cantor, will come down. The wire which lends the structure its vertical integrity may snap. Then my friend will have been right — it was only ever going to be a matter of when. In a more catastrophic scenario, the Cantor building may be reduced to rubble in the next great California earthquake. If so, the ceiling above “Untitled” will collapse, compressing the wire of the sculpture beyond recognition. Most likely, though, because it is contemporary art after all, it will be delicately removed from its location and moved elsewhere, either to a purgatorial storage space or otherwise to another museum (I recently learned that Asawa’s sculpture is currently on loan to the Cantor, which supports the probability of this last hypothesis). The state of suspension may be extended, but after all is said and done, it is foolish not to see that it must come to an end. 

So what is to be done in the interim? One possibility is to treat the sculpture coldly since it will not be accessible for long. On one hand, this could mean evading the Cantor (or at least the gallery it is housed in) until Asawa’s sculpture is gone, refusing to acquaint oneself with an artwork on the off-chance that its removal could spur heartbreak. On the other hand, this could mean taking pictures of the sculpture from every possible angle on the next visit, ensuring that it can forever be enshrined in images. Yet another possibility is to simply avoid thinking about the sculpture’s eventual departure. The plausibility of this path is all but ensured by the sterility of the modern museum and its bold proclamation of holding “permanent collections.” There is one last possibility: to accept the multitude of meanings and potentialities which the sculpture holds while in spatial and temporal suspension.

Contact Jasmine Liu at jliu98 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Jasmine Liu is a senior staff writer and writes for Opinions and Arts & Life.