Arts & Life

“Churro” or political commentary: the truth behind Meyer Green’s new sculpture

Feb. 10, 2022, 7:24 p.m.
(Video by Peyton Lee and Nikolas Liepins).

An unsettling sculpture appeared on the platform overlooking Meyer Green earlier this quarter. Confounded by what the sculpture is and why it’s there, students soon coined it “the churro” because of its twisting shape and ridges along the spine. The sculpture, in fact, is not a churro; it’s a political piece developed by artist Xu Zhen. The piece may have meaningful origins, but the art still fails due to its aesthetics and placement. 

The twisted Corinthian column, named “Hello,” was commissioned by Stanford’s Public Art Committee in 2019; the installation was delayed due to the pandemic. Stanford commissioned the artwork as part of its efforts to promote engagement with the arts through outdoor sculpture placements.

Aligned with Hoover Tower, yet bowing down towards the viewer, the sculpture’s posture of humility juxtaposes with the Tower’s erect form and implicitly draws attention to the Hoover Institute’s looming force over Stanford’s campus. The artwork demands attention. Its huge presence — fifteen feet tall — is a grand statement that forces passersby to stop and ruminate. 

Some students interviewed by The Daily lightheartedly appreciate the work. “I am the churro statue’s number one fan,” said Eli Arguello ’25.

D Fukunaga ’25 reacted to the piece through playful fan art.

A sketch of "Hello" with a dragon over it.
“Demon Serpent” (2022) (Art courtesy of D. Fukunaga).

These humorous reactions contrast the work’s original intent. According to an official statement for MadeIn Gallery, where the sculpture was first exhibited, “Hello” “constitutes a reality and metaphor on the encounter between civilizations of different time and space.” Xu intended for the work to be a critique of the rise in globalization while simultaneously challenging the role of traditional sculpture through the artist’s use of technology. 

One student interviewed saw a deeper message behind “Hello,” albeit still varied from its original meaning. “Personally, I think the new twisted Corinthian column sculpture represents Stanford’s nonconformity to strict standards. It’s a rejection of antiquated ideals and poses to inspire students about the unconventional nature of the school,” said Molly Cantillon ’25. 

None of these students are “wrong” in their interpretations; art is a fluid experience where meaning continues to morph after its creation. Given the lack of official statements or placards on-site when the piece was first installed, the raw responses from students are, perhaps, to be expected.

Some students question the piece’s aesthetics, regardless of its meaning. Josie Brodie ’21 said that the sculpture is a “quite questionable” choice. “I personally don’t think that it adds to the landscape, which is already, in my opinion, quite nice. I think it looks kind of strange and unnecessary,” Brodie said. 

Julia Betts Lotufo ’24 shared a similar sentiment saying the the sculpture feels “a bit out of place. It does make me feel a bit uncomfortable; I don’t know why.” Although timeless, the aesthetic of “Hello” feels more disconcerting than necessary for a sculpture positioned next to a student recreational space like Meyer Green.

While Brodie doesn’t appreciate “Hello” aesthetically, she does appreciate that the work encourages students to talk about art. “It did provoke conversation, which is surely what all art is meant to do, which is to get people thinking about what the meaning of art is and how the landscape should be beautified,” Brodie said. 

Not all students dislike the art. “I think it adds to the allure of quirky Stanford traditions,” Ryan Chi ’24 said. Sara Damore M.S. ’22 was surprised by “Hello” at first but has since grown to like it.

Stanford’s Public Art Committee was able to, in a sense, fulfill their goals of promoting art consumption and appreciation, regardless of how students react. The most valuable gift one can dedicate to an artist is their attention; it signifies that artwork has transcend the object state it is conceived as into the abstract realm that potentially challenges the viewer meaningfully. 

Professor of Art & Art History Bissera Pentcheva says that the art’s feeling of presence strangeness may be purposeful. While the piece in Meyer Green was made specifically for Stanford, another piece by Xu by the same name exhibited in the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. The Australian piece is a kinetic sculpture made out of robotics and a polyurethane cast that tracks viewers’ movement — staring back at the audience’s gaze. 

“The Australian version makes explicit how surveillance exercised by modern technology slithers into our private lives,” Pentcheva said. “‘Hello’ recently placed at the edge of Meyer Green at Stanford is set to trouble the romantic perception of the University as a free space; it is implicated by the system and does not exist outside and above it. We are all in the Matrix.”

Pentcheva encourages students to look beyond the visual pleasure of “Hello” when assessing its value because of its commentary on Western society and commercialization. She sees the piece as a twist on Western art because of how it builds on Graeco-Roman traditions.

“The monumental sculpture plays with the dominating and at times repressive legacy of the Graeco-Roman culture and aesthetics embodied in the Classical orders,” Pentcheva wrote in an email correspondence. “But ‘Hello’ also transforms the standard erect and solid column into a fluid, pliant and sensuous organic form: the snake. The serpent eerily suggests how the Western canon continues to slither and suffocate difference.” 

Too often, the definition of “good art” is rooted in a tradition that is exclusive to a specific history from the West. To see the divergence and irony behind the artwork, once we are able to position “Hello” in the broader context, kickstarts a wider conversation around what art or culture have not received support simply because of its foreignness, and which were adored simply because of familiarity.

We appreciate how “Hello” ponders the colonial legacy of Western society. The sculpture’s mutilated form lightly recalls deformed columns in Yuan Ming Yuan, a former imperial palace in Beijing, China, looted and burned in 1860 by British and French troops. Ironically, the most prominent remains of Yuan Ming Yuan are stone columns, seen in the image above, left from the small European section of the vast palace grounds; the wooden structures of other traditional Chinese architecture had completely succumbed to the fire. “Hello” echoes the fragmentation of Yuan Ming Yuan’s columns and alerts viewers to the problematics of power — and the underlying potential for violence — that comes with any aesthetic ideal. 

A collection of gray ruins.
Ruins of Xiyang Lou (Western Mansion) in Yuan Ming Yuan (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) 

“Hello” also makes interesting commentary on the commercialization of art, according to Pentcheva. The artist developed from being an artist into something of a brand under the XU ZHEN® brand since 2013. Perhaps this signals new developments in the art world as branding and identity become even more important to success.

“A corporate aspect exudes from the monumental sculptures of MadeIn; they seek to harness the aura of the unique masterpiece, to serialize and to monetize it,” Pentcheva said.

“Hello” is a disquieting presence on Stanford’s campus that provocatively brings into question the role of art in public space. It raises important questions about Western artistic traditions, commercialization, utopias and technology. We can appreciate these values of the piece while also acknowledging its shortcomings. Although the snaking column powerfully confronts passersby with its pondering on beauty and power, it also seems comically displaced next to students casually lounging on Meyer Green and whizzing by on their bikes. 

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.

Editors Note: This article has been updated to clarify that the Australian and Meyer Green pieces are distinct works, although the share the same name. The Daily regrets this error.

Betty He is the Screen beat desk editor. Contact The Daily’s Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.Bhumikorn Kongtaveelert '25 is the culture desk editor for the Arts & Life section and the Energy and Environment Beat Reporter for the News section. Contact The Daily’s Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.Nikolas Liepins ’25 is a photojournalist and staff writer with The Stanford Daily. Contact Nikolas at nliepins 'at' stanforddaily.com.Peyton Lee '24 is a Managing Editor for The Stanford Daily's Arts & Life section. His interest is classical music performance, but he also enjoys pop, R&B, and jazz. Contact Peyton at plee 'at' stanforddaily.com

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