New addition to Auburn’s public art program sparks lasting encounters with art

Published: July 05, 2019
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A timeless new sculpture stands across from the reflecting pool on the grounds of the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University.

“Figure of Infinity,” a twisting, diabase structure that resembles a towering figure-eight, has found a permanent home at Auburn thanks to the generosity of the Lethander Family Foundation, which gifted the work in honor of Director Emerita Marilyn Laufer. The sculpture’s arrival, only a few months ahead of the start of the museum’s biennial “Out of the Box: An Outdoor Juried Sculpture Exhibition” in October, continues the effort to develop outdoor sculpture and public art programs at Auburn.

The massive, 6,500-pound contoured black granite design is the latest creation of sculptor Pal Svensson. The 69-year-old artist—who travelled to the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art from his home in Gothenburg, Sweden—makes a strong visual impression himself, with shoulder-length stark white hair and elaborately scarred hands earned from four decades sculpting in his chosen medium of stone.

“At the start of my career, I would sculpt with clay, but it was too soft—it gave in to me too easily,” Svensson said. “I prefer the density, the resistance, in stone. I’ve been working with stone now for close to forty years.”

The process of carving “Figure of Infinity” required close to 10 months and the dedicated efforts of a full-time assistant who aided Svensson in the continual cutting and refining of the incredibly hard dark rock until it was perfectly smoothed and shaped.

Svensson arrived onsite at the Susan Phillips Gardens the morning of the installation to help direct the laboriously delicate process of lowering the three-ton stone artwork onto a pedestal in the middle of the Memorial Garden Fountain. Over the course of a half an hour, Svensson and a small crew secured the sculpture into a heavy-duty harness that a crane then carefully hoisted and carried over the garden wall to finally rest on the fountain’s base.

After setting it in place, Svensson approached his carving and explained to the onlooking crowd his creative process in crafting “Figure of Infinity.”

“I started with the idea of a Mobius band, which is 180 degrees that you twist. But then, if you’re going to create it as a sculpture...and you make four sides instead of two, you turn it 90 degrees instead, you have to turn it four times to close the loop—a double Mobius band.”

“The curves of ‘Figure of Infinity’ subtly relate to the small hills and undulating landscape in the garden, while its size and polished finish make it the obvious focal point,” said Andy Tennant, assistant director of the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art. “The four-sided Mobius band is a perfect object to view and contemplate, making ‘Figure of Infinity’ the ideal addition to the garden.”

“Figure of Infinity” is the most recent of the many outsized, thought-provoking sculptures Svensson has installed in public spaces around the world—among them the eye-tricking obelisk “Turning Triangle” in a neighborhood courtyard in downtown Chicago, an inward-funneling illuminated waterfall at the University of Gothenburg and a seasonal-themed sculptural series placed throughout the tunnels of the Norra länken motorway in Stockholm.

“In Sweden, we have a lot of experiments in art where you usually don’t see it,” Svensson said. “And it is always important to try to break new ground.”

The expansive Stockholm installation consists of five conceptual pieces representing spring, summer, autumn, winter and the turn of the new year intended to beautify the monotony of the underground highways, as well as orient motorists.

According to Svensson, it is just one example of the many ways public art’s accessibility can impact daily life—and naturally he emphasizes the role of stone.

“If you create public art in granite, you make something that can endure the use of it,” Svensson said. “And it could be your first real contact with art. In a museum or gallery, you are separated from the art, but in many public art sculptures, they are incorporated with the environment, and that can make the art, and the space it’s in, more beautiful.”

The added presence of “Figure of Infinity” to the museum’s outdoor art collection dovetails with the Oct. 4 return of the biennial “Out of the Box,” which, through nearly a decade, has been responsible for producing many of the public sculptural objects that distinguish the museum landscape.

“‘Figure of Infinity’ is another in a series of large-scale sculptures that we have acquired through charitable giving over the past eight years,” Tennant said. “With this year’s ‘Out of the Box,’ we will be bringing another 15 sculptures to the Art District grounds for one year. It is hoped that from those 15 sculptures we might be able to receive donations to acquire one or more to add to the permanent collection in 2020.”

The “Out of the Box” exhibition will run Oct. 4, 2019–Oct. 4, 2020, on the Arts District grounds, with works displayed at both the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art and the new Jay and Susie Gogue Performing Arts Center. Visitors can view “Figure of Infinity” and any other outdoor sculpture during standard museum hours and are also welcome to explore the gallery exhibitions “The Artistic Legacy of API” and “Fire and Water: Prints by Florence Neal,” on view through Sept. 8, and “Creative Cadences: Works by Roger and Greg Brown,” on view through Nov. 3. Museum admission is free and all exhibitions are open to the public. A recommended donation of $5 is appreciated.

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