A ‘sounding sculpture’ has been selected as KU’s Common Work of Art for new school year

photo by: Courtesy University of Kansas

Several views of the "sounding sculpture" by Harry Bertoia are pictured. The untitled sculpture was selected to be KU's Common Work of Art for the 2022-2023 school year.

The University of Kansas’ Common Work of Art for the upcoming school year is one that not only can be seen but also heard.

KU’s Spencer Museum of Art has selected a “sounding sculpture” by artist Harry Bertoia as the Common Work of Art piece for the 2022-2023 school year. As such, the untitled sculpture will be on display at Spencer for the entire year.

The sculpture is unique because it is designed to make noise as people touch and bend it. Bertoia’s work features metals such as brass that long have been used in producing sounds. In the case of the sculpture KU has chosen, people can brush their hand across the thin metal rods to make them vibrate and produce sound.

Exactly how people will be allowed to interact with the sculpture, though, is unclear. KU officials noted in their release announcing the artwork’s selection that frequent touching of the piece can degrade or damage it. But leaders at Spencer said figuring out how to address those problems is part of the appeal of the work, and causes it to fit nicely with a bigger issue that KU hopes to highlight with its Common Work of Art and its Common Book projects.

“How can we honor Bertoia’s intent for his sculpture while maintaining it for future audiences to enjoy?” Spencer Curator Kate Meyer said in a release. “This question relates to a larger theme of equitable access.”

Spencer leaders chose Bertoia’s sculpture, in part, because they believe it connects to themes of access that are raised in KU’s Common Book selection, “Disability Visibility,” which is a collection of essays written by people with disabilities.

The Common Book program, which began in 2012, encourages students, faculty and staff on campus to read a selected book for the year. The university makes copies of the book widely available, and also encourages faculty members to incorporate the book into their classes.

In recent years, the KU Common Work of Art project has dovetailed with the Common Book program. This year, the artwork will be available for viewing beginning Aug. 16 in the Jack & Lavon Brosseau Center for Learning, located inside the Spencer Museum of Art at 1301 Mississippi Street on the KU campus. The work is scheduled to remain on display through May 14. The museum also expects to host other monthlong displays of artwork that tie into themes from the “Disability Visibility” book.

As for the sculpture, it dates back to 1968, during a time period when Bertoia reportedly made nearly a hundred of the sounding sculptures and even produced a series of albums of the sculptures being played.

Bertoia — who was born in Italy but immigrated to Detroit before setting up an art studio in Pennsylvania — died in 1978. KU had the piece of art in its collection, as the family of Donald and Mary Hatch previously had donated it to the university.


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