The construction underway in the Science Quad signifies preparation for an art installation by Jenny Holzer that will combine both art and science. The art installation was commissioned from Holzer by the College. Holzer’s art can be seen in museums around the world, including the Guggenheim Museums in both New York City and Bilbao, Spain and the Reichstag Museum in Berlin, Germany. Holzer also received a honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the College in 2000.
The design for the installation will consist of an approximately 16’ long and 4’ wide table, with four benches on each side. Together, these benches and table will weigh about 5000 pounds and will be constructed from diorite, a stone similar to granite. Erected in memory of former chemistry professor and provost J. Hodge Markgraf ’52, the piece will be completely sandblasted with around 500 to 800 drawn molecular diagrams, constituting the scientific aspect of the artwork.
The molecules for the design were chosen from a pool of thousands, incorporating molecules that Markgraf wrote about, taught or invented. Added to that criteria were molecules that had interesting shapes, social relevance or just happened to look aesthetically pleasing. Markgraf was famous for wearing bow ties, and so also included in the designs is a molecular structure that resembles a bow tie.
The essential conversation that the installation encompasses is about how chemicals define who we are and how they can shape our behavior and function in the world. “Holzer’s work explores the use of molecular structures as a type of language,” said Margaret Adler ’99 G’11, a graduate work-study intern at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA). Adler has been working extensively with Holzer and the College to coordinate the installation. The artwork will represent “graphic, symbolic shorthand placeholders for much larger concepts of war, love, natural phenomena, emotion, pleasure and pain,” Adler said.
“Over the years, Williams has selected extraordinary artists to contribute to the art on campus,” said Lisa Corrin, director of WCMA. “Each time we decide to put art in a public space, we’re very thoughtful about the process. Williams takes its time making decisions in order that things are done well and at a very high standard.” Corrin, who is the facilitator of the commission for the Holzer installation, has a background in public art and served as the artistic lead for the waterfront Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, Wash.
“There has been a huge involvement from students, faculty, alumni and College staff toward this installation,” said Jay Thoman, professor of chemistry. Chemistry students including Karen Chiu ’10, Mindy Lee ’12, Rachel Patel ’12 and Charles Seipp ’11 used a drawing program called ChemDraw to create the molecular designs and proofread molecules drawn by Holzer and others on the artistic team.
“I had to verify that the molecules were chemically correct in terms of bond placement and spatial representation,” Lee said.
Thoman and his chemistry students pointed to the marriage of visual arts and hard science as an important and interesting element to the Holzer piece.
“It’s not just beautiful; it’s conceptual,” Thoman said. “It should make you think. You can’t just look at it and say it’s a table.”
Corrin, among others involved in the installation, believes that the Holzer installation will be much more than a simple bench for the College community’s everyday use.
“This piece is going to generate a lot of dialogue about the role of science in language and how these [molecular] symbols convey a deep amount of philosophical meaning,” she said. “Williams values artwork that has the capacity to think aloud about issues in the community that matter to us, and I think the Jenny Holzer piece will do that.”
Patel also has high hopes for the project. “I hope that the Williams community will be receptive to this installation and that it will be a lasting tribute to Professor Markgraf, the science departments and all other people who have helped make this project possible,” she said.