David Wood's 'Awakening' rises on campus
by Jim Patterson
photo by Susan Urmy
Midway between the back of the baseball field and the E. Bronson Ingram Studio Arts Center on campus, Awakening sits on a grassy knoll. On most days, you can see curious visitors slowly walking counterclockwise around it. Sometimes there’s a bit of confusion.
Occasionally, David Wood, a rumpled Englishman who could pass for Kurt Vonnegut’s little brother, can be found discreetly observing the scene.
“I have seen people walking right over to it and scratching their heads,” Wood said. “Sometimes I go over and say, ‘What do you think?’”
Awakening is a large spindly sculpture, 40 feet in diameter. Wood imagines that space aliens or even God might get a glimpse of it from the sky and wonder what’s up. A closer look reveals clues about the sculptor’s intent. For one thing, there is a poem written in chunks on the spokes of the sculpture.
Wood, the Centennial Professor of Philosophy, was at a crossroads when he finished graduate school. He could pursue a career in philosophy or sculpture.
“I applied for a job in philosophy and I got it,” he said. “So I taught philosophy for a long time. Then a few years ago I started thinking, ‘I don’t like having those either-or choices. I’d like to see what the other path would look like.’”
Inspired by the late artist Robert Smithson, Wood took his interest in environmental philosophy, which he teaches at Vanderbilt, and applied it to large-scale sculpture. After placing works in Australia and Albuquerque, he got his first sculpture in Nashville this year when Heliotrope was installed in Lake Watauga at Centennial Park across the street from the Vanderbilt campus.
Heliotrope, a sister sculpture to Awakening, is another large wheel-shape, this one floating. Wood said Heliotrope is a statement about our need to reinvent our relationship with solar energy and a commemoration of the devastating flooding in Nashville this year.
“I’m interested in what it’s like to be on this planet while being significantly connected to the rest of the cosmos,” Wood said.
Awakening has been introduced in stages. At first, Wood put yellow caution tape around it. Next, he took the tape down. Then he temporarily lifted up some of the spokes on the sculpture, bringing to mind a giant spider or octopus.
“The thing seems to be turning from a vegetative state into some kind of creature,” Wood said. “It seems to be coming to life.”
Awakening is influenced by Wood’s boyhood vacation days wandering the island of Guernsey, he said.
“Guernsey is this little island between England and France, and my parents would basically let me go off for the day,” he said. “This was when I was 7 or 8. I would spend whole days walking on the beach, swimming and almost falling off the rocks into the water. … It was an extraordinary sort of meditative experience.”
As a teen-ager, he enjoyed similar experiences hiking the hills of Yorkshire. Then his family headed to the United States, where his father had a fellowship at Yale.
“We went 10,000 miles over six weeks driving across the United States,” Wood remembers. “Eventually we got to the Grand Canyon, and I’ve never been able to get it out of my head. I thought I was on another planet. It makes you wonder who you are, what man is, what the planet is – that you’re seeing something that’s taken millions of years to be created by the Colorado River just slowly cutting its way through.
“These formative experiences led me into trying to process them, trying to make sense of them and give something back.”
Wood’s work in philosophy has veered toward environmental issues.
“As a student, I learned a lot from phenomenology,” he said. “Phenomenology is a branch of philosophy that takes experience very seriously and claims that we need to move back and forth between language and representation on one hand, and lived experience on the other.
“If we drift too far in one direction, we end up just speaking empty words. If we go too far in the other direction, we become one with nature and totally unable to say anything. The kind of philosophy I do tries to keep open the relationship, to make it dynamic and creative and fruitful.
“These art pieces are one way of doing that.”
For the first time in one of his sculptures, Wood uses words on Awakening, printing a poem on the “legs” that extend out of the center of the sculpture. Wood said the poem (below) is his attempt to be helpful.
“The words give you a starting point for interpretation,” he said. “The poem addresses us, the supposed pinnacle of life, and it says, ‘Now what?’
“What are we going to do with this planet? Are we the highest point of evolution, or are we screwing it up? Do we need to evolve further to actually take care of the place we find ourselves in?”
Wood’s hope is that Awakening forces the issue and makes us think about how we influence the future of the planet.
“It’s saying that the choice is ours,” Wood said. “We have to choose between catastrophe and celebration. It is a choice.”
changed, changed utterly
A terrible beauty is born
Even a flotilla of angels
Hatched at dazzle dawn
Would be outflanked by
These feeler strands of time
While they seem asleep
Recumbent on the grass
An electric sky applauds
Each tiny stir or twitch
As on the morning tide when
Beach stones pose as eggs
Licked by urgent waves
Splashing slow grey skins
This mole-blind Leviathan
Will surely rattle headstones
As it creaks its way along
While wisest beards observe
The flight of Time’s new firebird
My heart cannot drown the hope
Of your exquisite touch
Trembling with the quiet truth
That what rends the firmament
Casting stars from any track
Is your shadowed descent
And yet desire
Was not born with me
Is not each now brim-bursting
With the future it must bear?
Does not each here long
To nudge a distant there?
Does not every frozen being
Imagine breathing out and in
Does not every resting shape
Fantasize being animate?
All earthly things have dreamed
Of loosening their wings
While birds and butterflies
Are launched on skies beyond
Love may be a straggler
A ripple in the swell
But joy will shed its rosy cheeks
As flotsam in the sound
Lend dormancy your weather eye
A touch, a cosmic hug, a sign,
May soon direct a hungry breeze
Across old Gaia’s loins
Last raggedy man
This call’s for us for sure
And this time we must take it
Lest with sorry whimpering
We make a legless exit