New 50-foot-tall sculpture makes waves on campus

Samantha Ketterer

When students came back for the spring semester, they were in for one hull of a surprise. 

Greeting them was a 50-foot-tall structure composed of roughly 75 boats, suspended from a steel framework by a mass of cables. The sculpture, outside the Hackerman Building, looms over the corner of Speedway and 24th Street and features canoes jutting out at all angles.

The structure, completed Saturday, is the newest piece in the Landmarks collection, which is the University’s public art program. The piece, called “Monochrome for Austin,” was designed as part of a larger collection by Nancy Rubins, and it cost $1.4 million to produce, including the cost of materials, labor and payment to the artist.

A portion of the boats used in “Monochrome” were damaged boats donated by boating rental companies, according to Nick Nobel, external affairs coordinator for Landmarks. The rest of the boats were bought specifically for the project.

The structures in the collection are made to stand soundly in any part of the world, but “Monochrome” was constructed specifically to withstand Austin’s heavy winds, according to structural engineer Jaime Garza. Garza, a UT alumnus, assisted Rubins in the piece’s construction. 

A small percentage of the capital cost of new construction and major renovations of campus buildings is allocated toward funding of Landmarks projects such as “Monochrome,” as per a UT System policy, Art in Public Spaces, which was instituted in 2005. Nobel said the allocation is augmented by private contributions and support from foundations.

The funding used for “Monochrome” came entirely from private funding garnered as part of the overall cost of the Hackerman Building, which opened in 2009 and cost $219 million. Nobel said no money came from tuition funds.

The sculpture immediately made waves around campus on the first days of school, largely because of the piece’s size and prominence. Some students, operating under the assumption that the sculpture was funded through tuition, started a petition asking the University to return students’ tuition money.  

“I feel like the money could have been used better elsewhere,” said Kara Jencks, Plan II and biochemistry junior. “Art should be appreciated, but I don’t know if we needed over a million dollar sculpture.” 

Other students said they have trouble understanding the meaning behind “Monochrome.”

“I don’t even know what to think about it,” biomedical engineering senior Chris Suarez said. “It’s definitely interesting, but I’m so confused as to what exactly it’s representing, what its meaning is.”

Suarez said that although he does not fully understand the sculpture’s message, he does appreciate its visual appeal.

“I think it’s absolutely amazing,” Suarez said. “Leave it up to UT to always have some interesting work of art. I came back to school, and my mind is blown.” 

Nobel, the Landmarks coordinator, said the artist did not necessarily intend to convey one specific meaning.

“Since it is a contemporary piece of art, a lot of what it represents or what it means conceptually is in the eye of the beholder,” Nobel said. “Our goal was to bring something to campus that would make a statement, something that would show that University of Texas at Austin is a cultured campus. We want this campus to be distinctive and creative, something that people want to walk around — [it’s] something that really makes our campus stand out.”  

Beyond its visual prominence, “Monochrome” is also a landmark in one other respect — it is the first large-scale commission of public art by a female artist for the Landmarks collection. Rubins, the artist, declined to comment publicly on her piece.

“We are definitely very proud that this is our first commissioned art by a female artist, and, in a lot of ways, she is a powerhouse of the public art world,” Nobel said. “She’s done a lot of amazing art around the world.” 

The sculpture will ultimately serve as one part of a larger art project — eventually, the stretch of Speedway from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to Dean Keeton Street will be transformed into a scenic gateway, according to Landmarks director Andrée Bober. Bober said each new work of art the program members select is oriented toward this vision of a pedestrian walkway. 

“These projects come into the campus, and they are available for all people to enjoy — 24/7 and free of charge,” Bober said. “I think that’s what distinguishes public art from any other piece of art — to be able to engage with it without anything between you and the work is a pretty good thing.” 


Update: This article has been clarified since its original publication. All of the funding for "Monochrome" was gathered by private donors as part of the overall cost of the Hackerman Building.