Once-Controversial Sculpture Returns 30 Years Later

“I’m a patient person,” said Middlebury Museum of Art Director Richard Saunders.

And that’s a good thing, as it’s taken nearly 30 years for the College, with Saunders’ guidance and perseverance, to take care of some unfinished business.

In May of 1985, on the eve of Commencement, a work of art on campus was set on fire and irreparably damaged. The vandals were never identified, and the debris was ultimately removed and placed into storage.

The work was a sculptural installation called “Way Station” that was created in 1983 by the Christian A. Johnson Visiting Artist Vito Acconci, along with a group of students, during a winter term course he taught about public art.  Situated on the northwest edge of campus along the walkway near what is now Bicentennial Hall, the work was meant to intrigue students who passed by between classes.

“The idea was to encourage contemplation. The work had a spectacular view of the Green Mountains to the east and the Adirondacks to the west, ” explained Saunders.

The mostly grey steel structure consisted of a door that opened to reveal on its inside a painted interior of flags, one over the next. The international array included the United States, Soviet Union, People’s Republic of China, Cuba, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO)—all entities that were very much in the news politically at the time. Two steps led down into a small room with a built-in seat and desk. Opposite the door, three rows of moveable panels spelled out the words “God,” “Man,” and “Dog,” and the panels could be moved to reveal the mountain view. On the other side of the panels, viewed from the outside, were painted playing cards. A mirrored front was one-way glass so you could see out that way as well.


The artist Acconci peers through the panels of playing cards that were damaged in the 1985 fire.

“The intention was for people to sit in the structure and reflect on the politics of the time, and their place in relationship to others,” added Saunders, referring to the overlaid flags and the panels of words. “And the playing cards might represent the idea of chance and unpredictability in our lives.”

What should have been a curious conversation piece for a college community turned instead into the center of an acrid debate. For a variety of reasons, people on campus did not take kindly to the placement of the work, or its stark industrial look.

“When it appeared, with no explanation or context, in the middle of winter, on a central pathway, people were surprised and confused,” said Saunders. “There was very little tolerance then for things you didn’t understand. And there was also no history of art on campus back then. Nothing like what we have today. ”

And what we have today is largely due to the issues that were raised by the Acconci piece and its subsequent removal. The creation in 1994 of the Committee for Art in Public Places at Middlebury, known more commonly as CAPP, was a direct result of that time, and has since introduced numerous works of art, mostly sculpture, throughout the campus. “We wanted people to understand that there is a place for art on campus outside of the Johnson Gallery, which was then the main location for the college’s art collections.”

Throughout the 1990s, Saunders and others took up the cause for reinstalling the Acconci work but found little support.

“As a college, aren’t we supposed to teach our students tolerance for other points of view? Expand your horizons and open your mind up to all sorts of things you may not instantly like or understand? So why would we ignore this work?”

Eventually Saunders found growing support over time, and now, 30 years after it was commissioned, Acconci’s “Way Station” is restored on the Middlebury campus, this time near the pond behind the Mahaney Center for the Arts. An ongoing exhibition in the Museum of Art gives context to the artist and his work—both today and from the time of the vandalism.

“It’s an opportunity to get something positive out of this phoenix-like experience,” noted Saunders, recalling the way it had been torched so many years ago. “It’s a teachable moment, which college is all about.”

The official opening of “Way Station” will take place Friday, October 18, at 2 p.m., behind the MCFA, where the work is located. The exhibition, “Vito Acconci: Thinking Space,” is open through December 8. And the artist, who has since become an accomplished architect as well, will be on campus to deliver an illustrated lecture on Thursday, November 7, at 7 p.m. in Dana Auditorium.

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  1. I remember when that piece arrived on campus and had fun sitting inside it, playing with the panels.
    I am happy to see that it is back in its rightful place. It is a shame that it took so long to return home.
    Bravo Mr Saunders!

  2. I beg to differ with the idea that the arts were not appreciated at that time. They very much were. The problem was that the sculpture was “a shed” and considered hideously ugly. There was also talk of the artist determined to keep it there, which only created a “dare” situation. Had it not been placed where it was, it probably would have survived.

  3. glad to hear such provocative art returns to campus. The young people of today seem to be complacent in a similar way that the young people of the eighties during the Reagan era were and as a child of the sixties/seventies generation I think it is important that students are asked to question authority in the world around them.

  4. I think the key statement explaining why people didn’t receive the installation more warmly has much more to do with :
    “When it appeared, with no explanation or context, in the middle of winter, on a central pathway, people were surprised and confused” –which is true–than it does with “very little tolerance then for things you didn’t understand. And there was also no history of art on campus back then.”
    with which i would vehemently disagree

  5. I’ll back Stephanie on this. There was a lively arts culture at the time, but the opposition wasn’t to his “art” or the meaning of it (which was, frankly, simplistic), but to the fact that it was an obscenely expensive block of concrete. There was no student input, as far as I know, and Mr. Acconci was portrayed as an aloof artist, whether that was true or not. Most of the non-art world have a hard time when someone creates something offensive to the senses, then justifies its artistic merit by saying that it was meant to inspire discussion and controversy. Anyway, the entire campus celebrated when it was torched, an act of true democracy in

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    the 1776 sense of the word.

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  6. That piece inspired me to begin a life long affair with gambling – now I LIVE IN A VAN DOWN BY THE RIVER!!!!!
    Thanks for nothing, Vito.

  7. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and no one has the right to destroy someone else’s work. I agree with Mr. Saunders that college is a time to open your mind and expand your horizons. He is a credit to the college for bringing the sculpture back.

  8. I remember when the piece was placed, without explanation or discussion. I found it very utilitarian, hideously ugly, felt that it blocked such beautiful natural views….I actually thought the shed was the vandalization!

  9. The difficulty with art in public places that asks for tolerance while itself, whether intentionally (which is difficult to defend) or unintentionally (which is unfortunate) being intolerant, is that the negative response to it, whether as art, or whether as political statement, can engender the very intolerance it seeks to address. Case in point: the use of the flag of the Palestine Liberation Organization may be seen as a “dare” or “challenge” to those who are Israeli, Jewish, or support the existence of Israel as a state – so while Mr. Acconci may have intended for the piece to prompt thought, it might have been seen as rather an invitation to passionate and violent emotion – no more

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    defensible than the perceived insult. While I don’t recall exactly who it was who created, some years ago, an image of the Crucified Christ covered with elephant dung and other excrement for (I recall) MoMA with its subsequent hoo-ha, the request for a “tolerant view” can itself be utterly intolerant and denigrating. The difference for an educational institution like Middlebury is that while it can be a teachable moment, the college has to make sure that the teaching is thorough and examines as many aspects of the problem as possible – not merely in defense of Mr. Acconci’s right to create as he will, but also to acknowledge the validity of strongly opposing viewpoints that finds that offensive. Until both (or however many) viewpoints are thoroughly covered, Middlebury (among other public institutions) must tread with great care so as not to promote one form of tolerance while turning a blind eye to another form of intolerance.

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  10. This art piece now has so many dimensions given its own history and impression on the Middlebury community over the years. The image of the structure on the knoll is striking, for me, as it recalls the times of building underground structures to escape the potential threats of life. Also, the idea of descending into the earth to consider one’s relationship to life is intriguing. I’m glad this has become part of the art on campus again.

  11. Great news. Congratulations to Richard Saunders.
    The piece is very engaging.
    Hope it will be added to the spiral bound catalog of works of art on the campus and that mine will also appear there in!

  12. Stephanie- I think the fact that the sculpture was burned down because, in your words, “was hideously ugly” says all you need to know about whether art was appreciated. Just in case you are wondering, appreciating art is not the same as liking art.

  13. I was on campus when it was first installed and thought its presence and location were quite dissonant. Personally, I wouldn’t have reinstalled it because I find it to be a bit dated. I think the CAPP is a good idea to encourage discussion of the significance of art in the community. The article does not directly state that the CAPP supported the reinstallation of this piece. Are we meant to assume that it did? I’d be curious to know whether and on what basis the CAPP has rejected the placement of other works (if it has done so).

  14. I, too, remember when this piece went up. It was ugly and erected in a place that was all about openness and view and nature. Still, I remember feeling disgusted when it was vandalized. As Christo has so aptly taught us over the years, art that doesn’t “fit in” often makes us think the most..about what art is, why it’s there, what’s the meaning. I remember this piece because it did that to me…it made me think and look harder at where I was. Glad it’s back. Richard Saunders deserves congratulations. However, he should be careful about stereotyping the students of that time. His words “there was very little tolerance then for things you didn’t understand,” strike me as naiive

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    and close-minded.

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  15. As a parent of two Midd alums, the subject matter was precisely the reason I opened the article. The comments are fascinating. My own “reaction,” having been on campus many times, is that the appearance and location of this art was intentional, and part of the artistic representation itself. I suppose the historical reaction to it verified its very mission, if art must have a mission at all.

    Once created, all art becomes dated, and whether it is ugly, obscene, expensive, etc., etc. is in the eye of the beholder. How bland existence would be if all we were able to look at was liked by all, if that is even imaginable. In retrospect, the flags

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    juxtapositioning is uncanny, in light of us and Russia jointly going to the space station. If this work blocked beautiful natural views, didn’t it reinforce the perception of that beauty?

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  16. I was not on campus when this piece of art appeared suddenly, or so it seems, without explanation or rationalization. I agree with Christopher’s comment that the public is often asked to accept a piece of art “when someone creates something offensive to the senses, then justifies its artistic merit by saying that it was meant to inspire discussion and controversy.” I know that many artists are iconoclastic by nature, and they certainly have the right to be so. However, art in a public place forces that iconoclastic viewpoint on everyone else. Entering an art museum to see works of art is an intentional act that the individual decides for himself or herself. The Middlebury

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    College campus is such a beautiful place that nothing should detract from its natural beauty.

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  17. Not having seen seen the original, but being familiar with the era in which it was displayed, it appears to be more a political statement than a work of art. I can see why it’s showing caused an uproar.

  18. Christopher, I beg to differ. Vandalism is not the same thing as democracy. How disappointing to hear you say that, the same feeling I had when, as a sophomore at Midd, I learned that my colleagues had willfully destroyed this piece of art that I had found so “strange.”

  19. Ah, yes. The door to nowhere. It was really such an odd thing to see out in the beautiful open space. I don’t believe I ever knew that the door opened and you could go inside. I wasn’t intrigued enough to explore it, I just walked by and shook my head.

  20. I LOVE IT! I began my MIDD education in August of 1989 and so was not on campus when this piece of art was displayed. I SO enjoyed my 15-year class reunion (Class of ’93) and was so delighted to take part in a tour of the artwork/sculptures on campus. I think it is WONDERFUL to see such interesting works and it all adds to the unique beauty Middlebury has to offer. THANK YOU MIDD! I thoroughly enjoyed this article and the accompanying video. (With love from NEBRASKA!) Red Sonya

  21. I was there to see the installation and I agree with Stephanie (comment #2) that the piece was “asking” to be burned due to its unsightly appearance and the controversy surrounding its creation. I don’t think it is a matter of appreciating art; as a matter of fact I am not sure how many people actually opened it to see what was inside. Nevertheless, isn’t it wonderful that art can stir us as it does? My daughter, currently a Junior at Midd, excitedly wrote to ask me if I had seen this piece when I was there. How cool is that?

  22. I too was on campus when the monstrosity appeared. Although disappointed that it was vandalised, I was glad it was removed. “Art” this and “art” that–the thing was unsightly, a blot on an otherwise beautiful campus. I remember Ward Joyce’s and other students’ efforts at “guerilla” art that were clever, amusing, and aesthetically pleasing: they were removed post-haste. Had some student put Acconci’s work of ego in place where it dulled listlessly, the thing would have been removed in a day.

  23. As a conservator of art I have had to take spitballs off Rembrandts, graffiti off paintings, chewing gum off sculptures and other sundry by-products left behind by art vandals. Drawing on such experiences I would like to point out that sometimes the messages of vandals are not always expressions of larger philosophical stances. Having been a studio art major on campus during this time I can honestly say that the whole campus did not celebrate this “act of true democracy” and that art majors held meetings to discuss the sad outcome. I applaud Richard Saunders with bringing Acconci’s work back to Middlebury’s campus. I think resiting of the work closer to the museum is an important

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    step in addressing community concerns about its impact on the surrounding natural beauty while giving those of us who wish to engage with the piece the chance to do so. I have no doubt that most people would be surprised at what art works were considered the “monstrosities” of the past and deserving of censure. I am proud of the work I do to preserve cultural heritage and I am grateful that Middlebury has not shied away in this challenging dialog. My heartfelt thanks to both Richard Saunders and the members of the CAPP.
    -Heather Galloway, Fellow of the American Institute for Conservation

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  24. I remember when it appeared. There was with no explanation of what it was or that people could go inside it. We didn’t pass it between classes as there were no classrooms in that direction at that time – we passed it on the way to meals. It was along the stretch of sidewalk between Pearsons and the SDU’s with the magnificent western view. I recall that it was Professor Hunisak’s supercilious attitude that increased hostility to the sculpture – he asserted anybody who didn’t like it was just stupid. In any era when we talk of “teaching students tolerance” lets remember to expect tolerance of the faculty too.

  25. No doubt the Piss Jesus will join it soon. But the artist might consider changing the Hammer and Sickle to the Nazi Swatsika, truly portraying what the USSR was all about and how it slaughtered millions of its people, for no better reason than control. Ah, the delight of siiting with that great view of the Green Mountains, enveloped in tolerance for the absolutely seneless slaughter of those millions. I get that, don’t you? So glad its back on campus.

  26. I’m not a fan of the work, but I appreciate Saunders’s explanation of it, and I respect its restoration. I’m pleased that this time around the piece has been placed near the arts center along with other public art. It may be thought-provoking, but it’s also pretty ugly. The Acconci was brand new when I was on campus, and it already had a dreary, neglected, out-of-place, isolated look. It was always locked, too, so the intended interactivity was a fail. At the time, the nearby “new dorms” were also a widely disliked part of the Midd landscape, their Brutalist concrete architecture jarringly out of step with the other college buildings, old or new. When the college re-skinned those buildings with

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    traditional stone facades, I don’t think anyone wept.

    Sure, art can be controversial, and challenge our aesthetics and taste. But when it’s the architecture we live in, or sculpture we walk past every day in our public spaces, that challenge is usually unwelcome.

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  27. I was also on Campus when the “Middlebury Metro” appeared. I agree, the artist and professor were viewed as jerks (“aloof” and “supercilious” are more mature and PC). If they were going to play a joke on us then we were going to play a joke on them. Acconci got just what he wanted.

  28. I graduated from Middlebury in 1980 with a Russian and French degree, after five months in Paris following four in the then Soviet Union. I loved Middlebury and am surprised by the original act and by the majority negative comments above from people who presumably knew they were coming to a “Liberal Arts” college? As a Canadian, I only relative recently learned that “Liberal” was considered a negative word (silly me). I don’t remember the people I went to Middlebury with being quite so judgmental. And even if someone felt that something was ugly or misplaced, in what world is burning something down that you don’t like acceptable? Does “freedom” trump “justice” in “freedom and justice

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    for all”?

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  29. I am happy to see that it is back in its rightful place. It is a shame that it took so long to return home.


  30. I recall that Prof. William Harris had outdoor metal sculptures aroudn the campus in the late 1960s. Abstract, not politically controversial.Didn’t last — the paint deteriorated, and they rsuted. I don’t know just what led ot their being removed.

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We hope to create a lively discussion on MiddMag.com and invite you to add your voice. Please keep comments civil and relevant to the news item at hand. MiddMag.com may remove comments that do not follow these guidelines.

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