“Vito Acconci: Thinking Space,” which recently opened at the Middlebury College Museum of Art, is as much an act of atonement as an art show. It chronicles what has to be one of the creepiest incidents in the 213-year history of the highly respected higher education institution: the escalating destruction of a public sculpture created for the campus by an internationally renowned artist.
Acconci, famed initially for his videos and performance pieces, was invited to Middlebury for the 1982-83 school year to teach a class titled “Art in Public Places.” He and his students jointly assembled “Way Station I (Study Chamber),” an intricate work roughly the size of a phone booth that was installed along a walkway linking dorms and academic buildings.
It generated immediate controversy. Students who regarded the piece as ugly and intrusive soon circulated a petition calling for “Way Station” to be relocated to a less conspicuous site. More than 800 members of the Middlebury community, including some professors and administrators, signed on.
Debate boiled in the campus newspaper over the aesthetic merits of the work as well as the general issue of whether passersby must acquiesce to the placement of public art. Were “Way Station”’s detractors mere philistines disoriented by the shock of the new? Or did they have a valid point about a few avant-gardistes arrogantly foisting their taste on everyone else?
The following academic year, Acconci’s work began to be physically attacked. Corners of its frame were bent and dented. Graffiti was sprayed on its metal exterior, with one tag declaring, “Fuck conceptual art.” It was pelted with food and dirt. Someone shat inside it. And finally, in the spring of 1984, it was incinerated with a blowtorch.
The sculpture’s remains were interred in a college storage space, where they moldered for 28 years. Museum director Richard Saunders tried for much of that time to persuade Acconci and Middlebury’s overseers to assent to restoration of “Way Station.” “I had that as a cause from the moment I got here,” he said recently during a tour of the show. “But the college hesitated because what had happened was such a disturbing experience, and Vito actually found it sort of amusing that his piece had prompted such hatred. ‘Just let it go,’ he told me. ‘It wasn’t very good, anyway.’”
Acconci appears to have been right about that.
One of two doors giving entry to “Way Station” was adorned with the flag of the United States; the other bore the hammer-and-sickle insignia of the Soviet Union. Inside, two sliding glass doors with one-way mirrors enabled up to four occupants at a time to see outside without being seen. The words “God,” “Dog” and “Man” were inscribed on the sides of sliding panels on the piece’s interior; the faces of large playing cards were visible from the outside.
John Hunisak, then chair of Middlebury’s art department, likened “Way Station” in a commentary in the school newspaper to “a tool shed intended to withstand the apocalypse.” And he was one of the piece’s most ardent defenders.
Overly complicated and lacking both conceptual coherence and visual appeal? So it was seen by nonviolent critics and, presumably, by the vandals who defaced “Way Station.”
And so it still seems in its current, incompletely resurrected form. “Way Station” has been repaired and repositioned atop a knoll alongside the pond near the museum’s entrance. It’s not an exact replica of the original — in part because the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits access to its stepped interior. A metal fence enforces the prohibition.
Saunders eventually won Acconci’s permission for a restoration of the sculpture coinciding with the 30th anniversary of its creation. And, to prove there are no hard feelings, Acconci, now 73, will return to Middlebury for a public talk in November.
Why did “Way Station” provoke such a deranged reaction? Maybe it had something to do with the display of a Soviet flag during the Cold War. Maybe it was the zeitgeist of the mid-’80s, when the U.S. had sunk into a deep recession accompanied by spiking violent crime. But motives will never be known, because no one was ever charged in connection with the destruction of Acconci’s work.
Perspectives have shifted, however. Interviewed by phone last week, the now-retired Hunisak said he has “learned something about the dynamics of how you present something like this to a community.” The placement of “Way Station” wasn’t openly discussed in advance, he recalls. “I myself was totally in ignorance of how that decision was made.”
Saunders adds that many of today’s Middlebury students are fascinated by the story of “Way Station.” They find it hard to understand, he says, why a work of art would be destroyed on the Middlebury campus.
The account of what happened to the installation is relayed in the show mainly through reproductions of articles from the Campus, the college’s paper. They make such absorbing reading that the second half of “Vito Acconci: Thinking Space” may register as anticlimactic.
And that would be a shame, because curator Emmie Donadio has handsomely arranged photos and texts that trace the trajectory of Acconci’s post-Middlebury career. The native New Yorker, who works out of a space in Brooklyn, went on to establish Acconci Studio, which has designed playgrounds, parks, libraries, transit stations, apartment houses and commercial spaces. “My work went from art to architecture,” reads an Acconci quote running along one wall, “because I didn’t want viewers, I wanted participants, users, inhabitants.”
The original print version of this article was headlined "Prodigal Art."
“Vito Acconci: Thinking Space,” Middlebury College Museum of Art. Through December 8. As Cameron Visiting Artist and Architect, Acconci will give an illustrated talk on Thursday, November 7, 7 p.m. in Dana Auditorium. museum.middlebury.edu