The monumental work, formerly titled: “Marabar,“ references the caves of Indian monks and allows nature and culture to interplay
In the end, there were only 4 miles of distance between the old and new sites, but the dust has settled in the controversy over Elyn Zimmerman’s spectacular artwork “Sudama“ in downtown Washington DC. Some readers will know what it is all about when we mention the monumental work’s previous name: “Marabar.“
It was located at the headquarters of the National Geographic Society (NGS), and in 2017 the Society had announced changes there that would affect Elyn Zimmerman’s work. This led to fierce protests in the art scene and also from scientists, initiated by the Cultural Landscape Foundation. These have now been settled.
Zimmerman’s “Marabar“ derives its effect from the contrast of mirror-like polished and natural surfaces of large granite rocks and also has a reflecting water surface as part of the installation. It has since been considered a seminal work for the development of monumental landscape sculptures.
Let us tell the whole story: In 1980, the National Geographic Society invited various artists to submit proposals for art on buildings at its new headquarters in Washington DC. The client’s only stipulation was that the design should use water and stone.
Elyn Zimmerman’s idea was selected, even though she had not previously made a name for herself in the field of either landscape design or monumental art. Up to that point, she had worked primarily with painting and photography.
Zimmerman later recounted how she came up with her idea for the reflecting granite blocks along a 60-foot watercourse for the plaza: she had read the 1924 novel “A Passage to India“ by the English writer E.M. Forster, which described in detail a cave called “Marabar“: it was a massive ridge of granite rock, and inside it were caves with mirror-like polished walls.
She enthusiastically quotes Forster describing the lighting of a match inside the cave when reflections appear next to the real flame as if by magic, or how he is fascinated by the reflections of sounds and noises in the pitch-black rock chamber with narrow access.
In fact, there is a real model for Marabar, and Elyn Zimmerman learned about it when the search for a new location for her artwork was on in 2021: it is the Barabar Caves in northeastern India, which Forster had visited at the time.
They date back to the Maurya Empire (322-185 BC) and are considered a tourist highlight in the state of Bihar even today. They were carved into the rock as retreats for monks of the Ajivika sect; the monks lived in asceticism, and the mirrored walls probably served them for special perceptions as part of asceticism.
The National Geographic Society agreed to pay for finding a new location for Marabar and relocating the artwork. According to the ideas of Elyn Zimmermann, the new work should be named “Sudama,“ after one of the most famous among the real Barabar caves. She made some changes because the first work was designed specifically for the site.
So it finally came to transport the chunks, weighing a total of 240 tons, to the campus of American University, also in downtown Washington. There are 5 huge blocks and some smaller ones that now surround a crescent-shaped basin with running water now amidst grassy areas and trees.
“Zimmerman’s tranquil installation will provide students, faculty, staff, visitors, and the broader DC community with a truly peaceful and contemplative space that is open to all,“ says Linda Aldoory, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.”
“A reflective space—literally and figuratively,” says Jack Rasmussen, director, and curator of the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center. “You see yourself, your surroundings, see the water, the smooth, polished stone, in that very special space.”
Photos: Dylan Singleton, American University
(19.05.2023, USA: 05.19.2023)