LA JOLLA — Famous for its Nobel laureates, supercomputer and science programs, the campus of UC San Diego is also a 2,000-acre canvas upon which a dozen artists already have made their mark.
Shady eucalyptus groves punctuate the sprawling university, with its eclectic architecture and richly varied terrain. Modular concrete dorms cascade down the side of one shallow canyon, while a woodsy, rambling complex of student facilities sits in another. The futuristic central library, known to students as the UFO, looms at the center of it all.
Old converted water towers serve as artists' studios, and some classes are held in barracks abandoned in 1964 when the site was deeded to the university from the military, which had used it to train marksmen. Every so often, echoes of that past resound throughout the campus when military jets drone overhead, slicing through pristine views of the Pacific and clouding the calm of the intellectual oasis.
Over the past 13 years, Mary Livingstone Beebe, director of the Stuart Collection of outdoor sculpture, and the Stuart Foundation advisory committee have invited about 40 artists of international esteem, from Vito Acconci to Alexis Smith, to wander through the university, soak up the stimuli and come up with sites and proposals for permanent outdoor works of art. So far, 12 of those proposals have been realized, and the result is a collection lauded worldwide for its brilliant integration of art into the intellectual and physical fabric of the campus.
"Sculpture gardens are sculpture gardens. This is something completely different," says Robert Irwin, whose untitled stainless-steel-and-mesh installation of 1983 was one of the first artworks commissioned for the campus.
Next to the Stuart Collection, conventional sculpture gardens look as contrived as most zoos, their contents confined to pedestals and enclosures, arrows pointing the way from exhibit to exhibit, didactic labels explaining exactly what's on view.
Works in the Stuart Collection by Nam June Paik, Richard Fleischner, Terry Allen, Jenny Holzer and others behave more like animals in the wild, settling in where they can thrive, whether near or far from the beaten path. The first Stuart Collection commission, Niki de Saint Phalle's "Sun God" (1983), an exuberant, bird-like creature perched on a large archway, announces itself with unusual fanfare. Most of the others fuse more subtly with their surroundings, injecting them with subversive energy or, as is the case with Irwin's piece, enhancing their natural, ephemeral beauty.
Known for his work engaging the ineffable qualities of light and space, Irwin ended his roam of the campus in a lush stand of eucalyptus trees. Within the grove, he erected an overhead fence of sorts, a blue mesh band that zigzags through the trees at a height of around 20 feet. The fence's supporting stainless steel poles rise like the trunks of the surrounding eucalyptus, straight and tall, but at the level where the trees begin to thin and branch off, the poles sprout a horizontal web of blue that shimmers or dissolves according to the day's light. It's a transfixing sight, especially for the university crowd, "a diverse group of people," as Irwin describes them, "interested in expanding their interests and consciousness."
Nearby, within the same grove, stand Terry Allen's "Trees," a pair of lead-covered eucalyptus containing concealed speakers that emit, at intervals, a program of songs, stories and poems. Allen, a storyteller and musician himself, asked friends "what they would like people to hear coming from a tree." From their submissions and his own contributions, he created three different programs. The trees had been cut down in another grove to make way for new construction, sheathed entirely in hammered-on lead patches and "replanted." Visually, they are relatively inconspicuous, yet they send haunting, sometimes poignant, always completely unexpected sounds floating through the grove. (A third silent tree is currently in storage, awaiting a new site.)
"What I found most interesting about the campus was those groves of eucalyptus that people would walk through on the way to classes. There were a lot more of them then than now," Allen said of the campus, which has expanded substantially since he completed his "Trees" in 1986.
"I keep saying that some day these (the lead-covered trees) might be the only trees left."
Works in the Stuart Collection are not just site-specific, made to accommodate a given space. They are site-generated, inspired by the nuances of the natural environment and also by the university's function as a realm of discovery, a place for learning, evolving and testing. They act as catalysts for the kind of revelations universities are intended to spark--and more.