Art and design, catching the public’s eye on campus

“Untitled’’ by Ai Weiwei is part of “The Divine Comedy,’’ an exhibition of three installations on the Harvard University campus. “Untitled’’ by Ai Weiwei is part of “The Divine Comedy,’’ an exhibition of three installations on the Harvard University campus. (Justin Knight)
By Robert Campbell
Globe Correspondent / April 17, 2011

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It’s a surprising thing to come across on the Harvard campus. Nine big piles, maybe 14 feet square and 8 feet high, that look like forts children might make. The walls are made of kid-size backpacks, in shades of gray like the stone of real forts. We’re told by Harvard that there are 5,335 backpacks, although my own count is 3,456. It doesn’t matter. The number feels infinite. The fort-like shapes just sit there, ominous and inexplicable.

The figure 5,335 represents the number of schoolchildren who died in China after an earthquake in 2008. They died because their schools, alleged to be shoddily built by cheating contractors, collapsed unnecessarily. The empty, child-size backpacks represent the dead children. In the adjacent building, an invisible recorded voice recites the endless list of their names (it was not working on two recent visits).

The voice and the backpacks form an art installation called “Untitled.’’ The artist is Ai Weiwei, who was identified in 2010 by ArtReview magazine as the 13th most influential artist in the world. Often a critic of the Chinese government, Ai was arrested on April 3. As of this writing, his whereabouts are unknown, a fact that casts an even sadder aura around this piece.

“Untitled’’ is one of three installations by three artists at different sites at Harvard, all under the collective name “The Divine Comedy.’’ It stands in a green quad on Oxford Street in Cambridge. A second piece, “Cloud City,’’ by Argentine-born artist Tomas Saraceno, flies from a grassy roof terrace at Harvard’s Carpenter Center. The third, “Three to now,’’ by Berlin artist Olafur Eliasson, occupies the ground-floor gallery of Gund Hall.

All three fall somewhere between art and architecture, or you could equally say between sculpture and theater. That confusion of categories is part of the point. The trio is cosponsored by Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, where they teach architecture and related topics, and the Harvard Art Museums, where they study and display art. The hope is to do something Harvard has never been much good at, namely getting artists, art mavens, and architects actually to talk to one another and even collaborate. It’s no coincidence that all three artists have at least some training as architects.

Eliasson’s “Three to now,’’ like “Untitled,’’ is a winner. Walking into the Gund Hall gallery is like a visit to the outer cosmos. The dim air is populated by objects, mostly spherical, that glow brightly and seem to float in the air like tiny spaceships. As you move in and look more closely, you realize that they’re all very different, ingeniously contrived, and breathtakingly well-crafted.

Most of the objects invite you to interact with them. Many move in a controlled way, encouraging you to intervene and direct them in some manner. The most popular with visitors is a pen that draws elaborate geometric patterns on paper, each pattern determined by how you set the several controls that govern its motion. It’s a sophisticated version of a child’s toy Spirograph.

Eliasson has written that spaces and objects are never static. They change in two ways, first as they and their context vary over time, and second as theyare perceived by different viewers and occupants. “Three to now’’ morphs in both those ways.

Of the three artists, Saraceno makes the contribution that for me is least satisfying. “Cloud City’’ is a big transparent balloon that is trying to float up from the Carpenter Center but is tied down. Visible inside it is a smaller object that looks vaguely like a jeweled soccer ball. It’s as if the bubble were a craft intended to transport the ball to a distant cloud.

Saraceno is known for an interest in creating cities in the sky, networks of habitable platforms that float in the air. To approximate such a world, he crafts soft bubbles or dark, spider web-like meshes. Both seem to fill the air and thicken it. They can be powerful, but a single bubble failing to escape Le Corbusier’s already powerful building doesn’t count for much. Like Ai Weiwei’s backpack piece, though, it does have the virtue of inserting, into your perception of the familiar world, something surprising.

I talk to Sanford Kwinter, the curator of the triple show. Like everyone I spoke with, he is unable to explain the title “The Divine Comedy.’’ Except for being in three parts, the exhibit has absolutely nothing to do with Dante or his poem. Perhaps the sponsors hoped that if they billboarded a famous name from literature, they would gain status in a university setting.

Kwinter, who teaches at Harvard, selected the three artists. He cites a degree program at the design school called “Art, Design, and the Public Domain.’’ It’s evidence, he says, that art and architecture at Harvard are at last getting to be friends.

“We want to get rid of the distinction between art and design,’’ he says. He thinks most people’s concept of public space has become static and dated and needs shaking up. He talks about “interventionist architecture’’ that is “almost guerrilla-like’’ as a “new area of work’’ that “seems to interest young people.’’

Kwinter likes what he calls “doing work in the world.’’ Rather than placing a finished object permanently in a prepared space, the artist invades an existing world, tries to be out of place.

Eliasson sums up the role these architects-cum-artists would like to have. They can be, he writes, “agents in the ceaseless modeling and remodeling of our surroundings and the ways in which we interact.’’

It’s an ambitious agenda and a thought-provoking exhibition.

“The Divine Comedy’’ will be on view through May 17. “Untitled’’ is next to and partly inside the Northwest Science Building at 52 Oxford St., Cambridge. “Three to now’’ is in the gallery of Gund Hall at 48 Quincy St. “Cloud City’’ is at the Carpenter Center, 24 Quincy St.

Robert Campbell, the Globe’s architecture critic, can be reached at