“It’s a helmet.”
“It’s a gun.”
“It’s a gun wearing a helmet.”
“It’s a droopy mushroom.”
“It’s very… vertical. It’s sort of, um…”
“It’s a penis.”
It’s the sculpture outside my window—stunningly ugly, brutishly tall, bizarrely sensual. To me, it looks like a craggy polyp; to others—okay , many others—it’s a giant emblem of… masculinity. Objectively, it’s not much more than a broadly curved surface on top of several long, twisted pillars. But any way you look at it, it’s a jarring addition to the stone-and brick faux-Gothic aesthetic of Jonathan Edwards College.
Perched on a poured concrete patio in the fenced-in space behind the Master’s House, it dominates the route from the dining hall to the college gate. Every JE student passes it daily, but a surprising number of people have never noticed the thing. Few have even registered the fact that their walkway borders the Master’s backyard, a tiny garden space fenced off from the college courtyard, where the college bigwigs—white-haired fellows, special guests—mingle during the college’s Thursday evening garden parties, guzzling bottles of wine, nodding with approval at “the fine barnyard notes of this Bordeaux.”
The phallic centerpiece of these gatherings arrived in JE in the spring of 1998, when Gary Haller was finishing up his first year as Master. Haller, a professor of chemistry, studies heterogeneous catalysis by day, but his extracurricular passions center around the art world. An avid collector of figurative drawings—particularly those depicting the nude form—Haller has exhibited a broad array of paintings and photographs since taking up his post in JE. His curatorial contacts at the Yale University Art Gallery thought of him when the long-term renovation of the Gallery’s sculpture garden began, and one of them had the bright idea to evacuate the sculpture across the street to Jonathan Edwards. A crane was duly procured, and the statue was, in turn, lifted, rolled, and pushed into the Master’s garden. It has never left. The Art Gallery has never asked for it back, and there has never been a formal agreement about its status—only, as Master Haller puts it, “an understanding.”
The first year, a group of students opposed the statue so vehemently that they circulated a petition for its removal. Haller dug in his heels: “It’s my backyard, and the sculpture stays!” he told them. By 1999, though, the residents of JE had loosened up enough to adopt the thing as a sort of mascot. “They started calling it ‘the Master’s phallic symbol,’” Haller ruefully recalls, “and that was that.” Once, a student even asked to deck the statue with Christmas lights for the holiday season. Master Haller approved the project, but an eminent professor of Art History was so incensed with the “disrespectful violation of the integrity of the piece” that nobody dared touch it again.
When I ask Master Haller how he feels about the integrity of the piece, he grins. “Well… I like it now. It took a while. When they first asked me to take it, I said, ’It’s not my favorite piece… but it’s not unattractive.’ Now it’s become attractive because it’s familiar.” But what is it, anyway? The Master thrusts a huge book at me: “Here, take this. I don’t really know anything. I don’t even know what’s in this book.”
It turns out that the sculpture is, indeed, a helmet of sorts. It’s called Floating Helmets and was envisioned by the Greek-American artist Dimitri Hadzi in 1963 as one of a series of sculptures of helmets. These pieces are variously said to evoke the warriors of the ancient world, the devastating mushroom clouds of modern warfare, and—of course— sex. Or, as one art historian puts it, there is a highly “dominant phallic content” that brings “sexual overtones…to an aggressive extreme.” Hadzi seems to be one of those perennially underappreciated artists who resurface every few years just long enough for their supporters to make desultory pleas for relevance. One such supporter, Hadzi’s longtime friend Seamus Heaney, writes (perhaps a bit too rapturously) of Hadzi’s sculptures, “They excite the viewer’s whole being, making it want to fly round and round in delighted reconnaissance.”
But most of us never take the time to look at the thing in the first place. We don’t care about the sculpture except as a joke—the Master’s phallic symbol indeed!—and why should we? After all, what does it mean to live with a piece of art? To make fun of it. To bring it down to our level—or to let our simple, unwitting ignorance bring it down. It gets nicknamed. It gets compared to body parts. For better or for worse, it doesn’t make a big difference to anything or anyone— it’s no Mona Lisa, after all-and as we pass, it quickly fades into a forgotten form. We think instead about ourselves. Ten feet from the statue, two JE students are in conversation.
“I’m learning about symbio-… symbolo-… symbiology,” a freshman girl spits out proudly.
“Uh, what’s that?” her companion asks.
“Um, it’s symbols,” she says. “Like what things mean and why.” They walk off into the heat of the day, away from the shadowy crevices of the college they call home, oblivious to the floating helmets of Floating Helmets looming above, and what they mean, and why.
Julia Wallace is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College.