“For Handel”, From Interactive to Inactive

“For Handel” by Mark Di Suvero from westerngallery.wwu.edu

Western Washington University is a college in Bellingham, the most northwest part of the United States, about 15–20 minutes away from Canada, and it is the college I currently attend. On my first day I was greeted by a sculpture of great magnificence that reminded me of my hometown in Seattle. If you have been to the campus of WWU, you have seen “For Handel” by Mark Di Suvero, then again you if you have been here you wouldn’t need this description.

“For Handel” is a large red metal sculpture located at the Performing Arts Center Plaza, the most Northern part of campus. It is reminiscent of the work of Alexander Liberman, especially his sculpture at the Pacific Science Center “Olympic Iliad”, yet more spartan in nature. Alexander’s work has a certain fluid nature to it, while ‘For Handel” seems more industrial with its use of steel girders, nuts and bolts, and sharp corners. “For Handel” is also minimalistic with using only five girders, whereas other sculptures like “Olympic Iliad” use dozens of separate parts.

“Olympic Iliad” by Alexander Liberman

As it stands now, it doesn’t draw many people to it, even though its orangish-redness sticks out against the greens of the trees and grass, and the pale browns of the surrounding buildings. This is probably because it is out of the way of many things. Unless you are going inside the Performing Arts Center to hear a concert, you have little reason to walk through its plaza and look at “For Handel”. There are a few students who come and go, glancing at it. Others may sit near it and work on homework for their classes, appreciating the venue of the outdoors. Art is usually supposed to draw people in, but “For Handel”, does not do that like other pieces of art do.

What puzzles me is that the structure has changed over the years.

When the sculpture was finished in 1975, it included an active component; a swing. Almost anything I can think of can be improved by including a swing on it, and sculptures are one of them. But it was removed shortly after the piece was finished. Rumor says that it was because someone hurt themselves on it, but I could find no official reason as to why it was removed. So now, instead of being an active center to the plaza, it sits passively like a wall flower, a painting on the proverbial wall of a museum that barely anyone visits. A structure like “For Handel” is meant to be outside and looked at, not virtually shut behind museum doors. In my many visits to the PAC plaza, there were never many people there. An active and interactive piece of art would attract more people, making the plaza a hub of activity, but it seems it needed to be changed so it could be safer.

But is it safer now?

People still try to make it an active piece of art, and climb all over it. On one of my visits to the plaza, I accidentally scared a man who was climbing on the piece, and he fell off. Thankfully he landed on his feet and was uninjured, but it could have been disastrous. It seems that people want an outlet for activity. If “For Handel” still had its swing, would there be more people there to enjoy it? Is it still an interactive piece of art?

Interactive art is art that involves the participant in some way, and the purpose of the art is achieved when someone interacts with it. Interactive art pieces have been around since the 1920’s according to Söke Dinkla’s 1994 article, “The History of the Interface in Interactive Art,” and the can be anything from video games to a glorified playground, like Thomas Heatherwick’s adult playground in London’s Southbank central square featuring a few of his “spun chairs” (they are exactly what they sound like, chairs that spin).

If people still treat “For Handel” like it is a playground, which they do, then it can still be considered interactive art. It may not draw the same amount of people to it, but there are some that seek it for its activity.

Do there need to be more people to enjoy the Performing Arts Center plaza?

Instead of being a hub of activity like it was most likely intended to be, it has gained a new purpose; to be a hub of inactivity. I have seen many different people, although not all at the same time, come to the Performing Arts Center to be alone and do various things; enjoy the view, do work, or just unwind. It is harder to do those things when there is a loud crowd. Although there are some interesting noises such as passing cars, the occasional train, and the few birds returning for pre-spring, it is quite peaceful (its hard to be anywhere in Bellingham and NOT hear the trains).

Other places on the campus of WWU may not cut it for those who want inactivity. Other pieces around campus, like Red Square’s fountain (mid north of campus) or “The Man Who Used to Hunt Cougars for Bounty”, (a white sculpture of a man hugging a cougar in front of the campus library) may not cut it because those places are busy with students rushing from class to class. You could always go to the arboretum(one of Bellingham’s many wooded areas) just east of campus to be alone with nature (and you will definitely feel alone because of how big it is), but that adds an active aspect. To get to anywhere in the arboretum (and to even get to the arboretum) where you could sit and enjoy the view, you would have to walk a significant amount for someone who wishes to be inactive.

Perhaps art and nature are best observed in an inactive environment.

Museums tend to be quiet places so that the mind isn’t distracted and wanders away from the art you are contemplating. And when you walk through a busy square with a statue or sculpture in it, do you usually stop and appreciate it, or do you continue with the flow of the crowd. So perhaps it is better that “For Handel” has changed over these past decades. Yes, it is sad that it is no longer as interactive as it once was, and it no longer fulfills the purpose that its creator Mark Di Suvero wanted it to have, but “For Handel” seems to have found a new purpose to be a hub for the inactive. A purpose that is in many ways better than the original one, and a purpose that may stay the same for years to come.

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