Once destroyed, a public art installation is resurrected on college campus

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury College Museum of Art last week inaugurated its newest addition to the campus’s distinguished collection of public art — a reinstallation of Vito Acconci’s provocative and seminal sculpture Way Station I (Study Chamber). The sculpture is located adjacent to the pond at the Mahaney Center for the Arts on Porter Field Road.
In conjunction with the exhibition, Acconci will give an illustrated talk, free and open to the public, in Dana Auditorium on Thursday, Nov. 7, at 7 p.m.
Acconci, an artist and architect of global stature, began his career as a writer and performance artist. Much of his early installation work incorporated language directly into the experience of the viewer, and some of his performances set a high bar for the extremely provocative performance art of the years to follow. By the late 1970s his work was featured in numerous museums, and he had his first retrospective exhibit in 1980 at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art.
While a visiting artist at Middlebury during the 1983 winter term, Acconci, completed Way Station I, a large metal shed with a single entry way and a six by four-and-one-half-foot foundation. The structure included painted images of flags of various national entities — the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Cuba and the Palestine Liberation Organization — as well as mirrored glass and painted two-sided sliding metal panels. On the inside of the structure the panels spelled “GOD.” “MAN,” and “DOG”; on the exterior they depicted playing cards.
Way Station I was originally installed at a site between dormitories and dining halls, along a pathway regularly traveled by many students. Now the area is bounded by the Ross Complex, McCardell Bicentennial Hall and the Freeman International Center. The piece was intentionally sited in the vicinity of the College Observatory and oriented to take advantage of the view of the Adirondack Mountains to the west and the Green Mountains to the east. It was intended to provide its users both a study space and a place for rest, contemplation, and reflection.
Though intended to invite introspection, Acconci’s sculpture did just the opposite, inciting contention and abuse from much of the campus. Students and faculty alike complained about its plain metallic appearance and its placement on campus. Debates and arguments about the sculpture’s artistic merits occurred regularly in the Middlebury Campus newspaper from the moment it was constructed. In addition to verbal abuse, the structure also sustained regular physical abuse on the way to its ultimate demise in May 1985, when an unidentified vandal or group of vandals lit the sculpture ablaze.
Initially, although there was some public mention of its reappearance, few advocated for repair of the work. But after more than three decades in storage the sculpture — at the behest of Richard Saunders, director of the museum and chair of the college’s Committee on Art in Public Places (CAPP) — has now been reinstalled, with some modifications. CAPP, founded by the college trustees in 1994 to direct 1 percent of the construction cost of new buildings to the placement of compelling works of art on the campus, is composed of faculty, students, administrators and trustees of the college. The committee has been instrumental in the acquisition and placement of all 22 current and past works of public art into whose ranks Acconci’s Way Station I has been reincorporated.
Way Station I was Acconci’s first permanent site-specific work and, retrospectively, it clearly marks a significant transition from his temporary installations to his permanent architectural work. In conjunction with the reinstallation of Way Station I the museum is also showing a retrospective exhibit titled “Vito Acconci Thinking Space,” on view through Dec. 8, which includes photos and information about several of Acconci’s completed projects as well as reproductions of Middlebury Campus articles covering the controversy the work created. Way Station I will remain open to the public during assigned museum hours.
A publication recounting the history of Middlebury’s Way Station I (Study Chamber) will accompany the exhibition and mark the replication of the sculpture.
The Middlebury College Museum of Art, located in the Mahaney Center for the Arts on South Main Street on the southern edge of campus, is free and open to the public Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. It is closed Mondays.

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