There’s an unusual sculpture at UC San Diego rising high in the air between the Medical Teaching Facility and the Basic Sciences Building. I say it’s unusual because it doesn’t feature a “usual” depiction of the human form and I’m not sure how it affects me.
The piece’s title is Standing, and its creator is artist Kiki Smith. The public art was added to UCSD’s Stuart Collection in 1998.
Gazing up at the small, vulnerable figure you’ll notice what appear to be nails sticking out from her upper body. It looks like an example of a surgical procedure in a medical textbook. It makes her look like a passive, punctured thing, not a vibrant human. The form appears tired, aged, fragile, resigned to her inescapable condition. It strikes me the sculpture depicts a confrontation with our human mortality. She stands atop a severed tree trunk. Her face seems to ask: Why me? When the fountain feature is on (it wasn’t when I walked by), water drips from her hands. I almost wonder if the dripping water makes one think of draining blood.
Yet, to me, the sculpture isn’t really that morbid. It’s simply seems a clear-eyed observation of the material human condition.
An interpretation from the website that describes the piece emphasizes certain dualities: “Cast from a live model, the female figure atop Standing calls forth thoughts of human strength and frailty, and both the power and the limits of medicine. Serene and ageless, she stands in a Madonna-like pose that is both vulnerable and generous. Ribbons of water – the source of life – flow from her hands into the rock-lined pond below, with a soothing, mellifluous sound.”
Perhaps my own interpretation is too bleak. It’s hard to see past those nails. They remind me of an earthworm dissection I performed using a square of cardboard and pins in high school. Perhaps if clear bright water was flowing from her hands my feelings would change.
If there is strength and generosity in this sculpture, it comes from within the form, from a place unseen–an organ those sharp painful nails cannot reach. And the water’s sound must be the gentle sound of present living. A sonorous whisper from a human standing.
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