Press Releases

Public Art Flowers in New Spots on Campus By STEVEN FINACOM Special to the Planet

Friday June 24, 2005

Here? There? While a new streetside civic sculpture in south Berkeley has received considerable attention in recent months, major public art installations have been more quietly blossoming on the UC Berkeley campus.  

Although some of the most dramatic pieces are temporary—products of an artist-in-residence program—they all add considerable visual excitement to a campus where scholarly wisdom and creative energy are extensive in the visual arts, but public sculpture is sparse. 

There are three relatively recent installations worth noting. 


Pomodoro Orb 

A partial seismic retrofit of the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum a few years ago altered the outdoor sculpture garden. Some sculptures migrated across Bancroft Way to the campus where they have been, on the whole, quite successful additions. 

The latest to arrive at a permanent site—via a long detour for conservation work—is the best, “Rotanle dal Foro Central,” by Italian sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro.  

Long-time Berkeleyans will remember this huge, gold-glimmering bronze orb that stood outside the Durant Avenue doors of the Pacific Film Archive and Art Museum café. It was added to the museum’s collection in 1971. 

(There are similar Pomodoro orbs around the world. Curiously, by coincidence, one is displayed in front of the Berkeley Library at Trinity College, Dublin). 

The more than head-high sculpture is partially bisected into two hemispheres and pierced by channels that, from some angles, make it resemble a gigantic eyeball. Unevenly geometrical encrustations and fissures interrupt the smooth, regular, curve of the outer surfaces. 

The orb is well placed in its new location on a lawn along the pathway that leads up into the campus from the intersection of Oxford and Center Streets. Situated against a shady backdrop of live oaks and redwoods, it is especially interesting this time of year when the low, late evening, sun strikes the polished bronze. 

Along with a handsome nearby neoclassical sign wall that welcomes visitors, the Pomodoro sculpture makes this traditional pedestrian entrance to the campus feel particularly well adorned. The sculpture also informally presages the proposed relocation of the Berkeley Art Museum to the city block on the northwest corner of the intersection of Oxford and Center streets. 

The Pomodoro stands not far from a marker commemorating the Don Pedro Fages expedition—the first European-Americans to pass through the future Berkeley—which visited this area in 1772.  

Just as passersby today pause to view the enigma of this giant and solitary bronze egg, so native Californians, if they were nearby in that year, might have wonderingly regarded Fages and his men as alien, but also compelling, apparitions in the local landscape. 


Babel Library IX 

The relatively recent augmentation of campus cultural programs with an artist in residence position has produced two major, although temporary, indoor art installations. 

Spanish-born, Denmark-based, artist J. Ignacio Diaz de Rabago created two sculptures under the auspices of the Consortium for the Arts and the campus Arts Research Center. 

“Babel Library IX” stands—or, rather, hangs—in the four story cylindrical rotunda of the Gardner Stacks, the underground addition to Doe Library near the center of campus. 

The installation consists of dozens of books pierced through with metal cables and accessory holes and strung on diagonals across the four-story atrium space. 

I imagine a sense of weightlessness was intended, but it doesn’t come across to me. The books hang there, some slightly quivering in air currents, like pinioned butterflies.  

The project also seems confined in a straitjacket of site specificity. What sort of art installation to create in a library? Why something that turns books into art, of course! 

There used to be a little more catholicity in the decorative sensibilities of those that designed and ornamented libraries. John Galen Howard, who probably never knowingly mutilated a book, placed a bronze bust of the Goddess of Wisdom over the main entrance to Doe Library three generations ago. 

In contrast, next door at the Gardner Stacks, “Babel Library IX” greets seekers at the portals of knowledge with Shakespeare on a stick.  

I don’t mean that metaphorically. A frail volume entitled W. Shakespeare is one of those impaled on a metal cable. Rarely has the tension between “art” and “literature” seemed so great. 

My appreciation of this artwork was additionally diminished by a little disclaimer posted in the atrium. “The books used in this project were not part of the Library’s collection and were slated for disposal.”  

You can, in fact, see the UC Library imprints on some of the books. And the library website confirms that the books are indeed from the University Library, but calls them “discarded and unsalvageable.”  

“Unsalvagable” seems disingenuous. Many of the books look in decent condition. They may not be useful to the library, but they are not toxic waste. I might well buy “W. Shakespeare” if it were shelved in University Library’s surplus booksale room, “for disposal” rather than perforated with a drill. 

Some might argue that the content of these older books is obsolete and unneeded in the library’s collections, regardless of their physical condition.  

But look at a few of the visible titles. “Federal Censorship,” “Health Care Politics,” “U.S. Foreign Commerce,” “American Child Health,” “Pakistan: A Political Study,” and “What Every Child Needs.”  

Those topics read like tomorrow’s newspaper headlines. But the books themselves? You can’t read them anymore. Of course, they’re now “art”. 


Round Room 

Diaz de Rabago’s “Round Room” follows the same approach as Babel Library IX—a family of similar objects suspended in an atrium void—but there is a world of expressive difference between the two installations. 

This piece is wonderful. The artist has engineered, with the most simple materials, a nearly weightless convergence of expressive art and architectural space that makes full, complimentary, use of its setting. Go see it. 

More than a hundred small foam balls are strung in a random pattern on fishing line through the three story lobby of the Hearst Memorial Mining Building, built nearly a century ago to a design by John Galen Howard. 

The balls seem carefully sized to match the globular light fixtures that run in rows around the bottoms of the metal balconies; art and electricity merge. The spheres also play off against the shapes and forms of the suspended light fixtures, fanlight windows in the main façade, and three circular, segmented, skylights.  

To completely appreciate this installation you should go from floor to floor, looking at it from different levels and perspectives. Different times of day, too; it’s just as interesting in early evening shadows as in bright morning light. 

What does this represent? Should we regard the balls as bubbles, molecules, stars? Who cares. The piece is magical, however you choose to regard them. The first time I visited this installation I was reminded of the scenes from the Harry Potter movies, when lighted candles float unsupported in the Hogwarts Castle dining room, or swarms of winged keys flit through a gloomy vault.  

Rabago says in a press release, “most of my work has to do with gravity, and to get free of gravity.” Here, in one of the truly grand buildings of the campus, he succeeded. 

Where to see the art: 

Babel Library IX” is in the Gardner Stacks, accessed through Doe Library. It hangs beyond an access control desk, but visitors are currently permitted to go in and view the installation from the top level of the atrium. For library hours, check 

“Round Room” is in the main atrium of the Hearst Memorial Mining Building in the northeast corner of the campus. Enter through the main doors on the southern façade. A university press release says this installation may be dismantled in July, so visit soon. 

“Rotante dal Foro Centrale,” stands just east of the intersection of Oxford and Center streets.  

Biographical information and descriptions of artworks by Diaz de Rabago can be found at