Overlooked sculptures: ‘The Wand of Inquiry’

Overlooked sculptures: ‘The Wand of Inquiry’

February 7, 2020

Brandeis University is loaded with all kinds of public art. We’ve got busts, we’ve got plaques, we’ve got strange nightmare monoliths, and they are all beautiful. That said, some of these installations are more beautiful than others, while some will not reveal their beauty without a little context first. Such is the way of contemporary art. Thankfully, the trained art analysts of The Brandeis Hoot exist to cast some light upon these shadowy modernist enigmas that dwell just beyond the pale of sight and reason. This column will focus on the most obvious of these overlooked sculptures, the metalwork known as “The Wand of Inquiry.”

The Wand was created specifically for Brandeis University in 1983 by the metal-rolling specialist Lila Katzen. Rising into the air like a holofoil ribbon between Loop Road and the Shapiro Science Center (SSC) is Brandeis’s most recognizably obscure sculpture. Many of us walk or drive past this thing every day, yet “The Wand” possesses the faculty of completely deflecting attention. It is an entirely unmarked sculpture; no signs are to be found anywhere in the vicinity describing its origin, meaning or even the artist that created it. The sculpture’s decentralized location along a path mainly used for commuting means that those few people that might be interested in learning these things would never have an excuse to get close to it anyway.

Despite its obscure nature, The Wand is a visually brilliant piece of metalworking that glimmers throughout both the day and the night. The two sides of the rolled band of steel that forms the “ribbons” of the structure have been buffed differently so as to give the structure’s visage dimensionality. The outward-facing side has a sanded effect that contrasts the considerably smoother looking, linearly ribbed interior plane. This causes the sculpture to shimmer in daylight, like a holographic trading card or a polished gemstone. This effect is actually magnified at night, when the concentrated light from surrounding street lights illuminates the sculpture’s surface unevenly, drawing out a diamond rainbow of green and orange hues alongside gradients of metallic greys. 

20th century modern art has a tendency to exude outward sensations of coldness and detachment, even at times dipping into malicious contemplation and brooding. While “The Wand” exemplifies these characteristics from a distance, its modernist facade belies less complicated intentions. If spectators pull themselves away from the sidewalk and examine the spectacular coloration of the buffed metal up close, all reservations are quickly forgotten. “The Wand” is first and foremost an ode to fine craftsmanship. The artist, Lila Katzen, boasts a portfolio filled with curling steel sculptures. By altering the luminosity of her metal, she is able to modulate the mood that her sculptures evoke. Some of her works are dull, rusty things, emulations of junkyard scrap and industrial detritus. Brandeis’s sculpture is the exact opposite; its playful luminescence showcases the potential for metalworking to both captivate and inspire. It reminds the spectator that art is physicality first. It does not explain sensation so much as it invokes sensation—theme and meaning is but the paltry machination of galleries and academics.

The piece’s title, “The Wand of Inquiry,” warrants examination, especially given that it looks nothing like a wand. It’s a metaphor: the shape of the sculpture is more reminiscent of a flame. Given Brandeis’s stated ideal of striving for “truth even unto its innermost parts,” the crystalline fire seems like an apt symbol for the act of passionate inquiry and the university as a whole. A deeper reading of the sculpture would note its distinct double helix form. While it might not have been crafted with the express purpose of representing an abstracted DNA strand, the statue’s proximity to the biology and medical buildings on campus is conspicuous. The DNA strand is, afterall, the innermost source of all organic inquiry (unless you are one of the three physics majors on campus). Regardless of whether or not “The Wand” has any intended shape at all, its skyward ribbons and shining visage speak to a certain academic romanticism. It stands as a glimmering, corrosion-proof testament to the highest ideals of academia and science in spite of the mire of scandal and bureaucratic foolery that has embroiled both Brandeis University and the greater United States in recent decades.

If I may speak personally, this sculpture has gone from one of my least-thought-about objects on campus to somewhat of a personal favorite. I certainly won’t be able to ignore it on my next trip around Loop Road! When the weather finally begins to thaw in the coming months, I encourage all who read this to make the pilgrimage to “The Wand.” Gaze upon the flowing metal highlights and gently twisting bands and know contentment. The exercise will be quite relaxing. Form a connection with the sculpture and, in doing so, strengthen your bond to the campus in totality. There is much to loath about this place, but there is also so much to love.

Editor’s Note: This is part one in the series, “Overlooked Sculptures.”

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