Against the Koan

The ‘Koan’ is a public artwork at the University of Warwick that remains one of the foremost works displayed at the University and has gained somewhat of a cult status. Unfortunately, the Koan is awful. It is such a comprehensive failure as a work of art you almost feel you are owed compensation merely for being forced to look at it. It is kitsch, and vulgar, and deeply offensive. I have frenzied visions of hordes of undergraduates rolling it into a ditch. It is the imperfect summation of all the mundanities of the twentieth century. But I write this article not to air some bizarre phobia, or provide an outlet for impotent whining, but as a direct call to action. I don’t care how, but the Koan must be removed from campus. For those of you, who on instinctive aesthetic grounds, are not already convinced, I use this article as part of an offensive to try and push past the dripping sentimentality that sees us cling to this relic. I lay out this case by first looking at what the Koan supposedly represents, and then proceeding to outline its history at the university and why it no longer belongs here, finally considering broader aesthetic concerns and what a suitable replacement might entail. 

When considering a work of art, especially in the modern context, it is vital to first allow it to speak for itself; assess it against what it strives to be. A quick foray onto the university website provides a statement: “The title of this sculpture is a pun on its shape and the Zen Buddhist concept of a koan – a question without an answer.” – the phrase ‘question without an answer’ speaks for itself, doesn’t it? It has that great quality of modern art! the half-educated reassure themselves. It really makes you think, doesn’t it? About what? Errmm, well, on that I’m not quite sure, but goodness, does it make you think! The questions it poses! 

Lame puns are more or less what the sculpture amounts to

These lame puns are more or less what this sculpture amounts to, and belong to the category of wordplay that only gets less clever each time you think about it. The two main allusions in the piece are to eastern religion and technology (it lights up and spins at night. Impressive, right?). Both these, however, feel rather twentieth century. The allusions to Buddhism feel tokenistic and shallow, a pathetic attempt to appear more worldly than one truly is, to create an ‘international’ art by artists seemingly picking stories and symbols as they please. There is no genuine understanding or affection displayed here, it is merely a reference, and while it probably made a handful of boomers feel terribly cosmopolitan when it was installed in the 70s, in a 21st century world where ‘cultural appropriation’ as an explanatory mechanism carries so much weight, it falls decidedly flat. 

The implementation of technology here feels like innovation for innovations sake, thrown in under the guise of ‘originality’, and while may have been impressive for the time, the novelty of such “innovations” soon wears off. This aspect of the work is also bizarrely tied to gender, as the opening paragraph in Ms Lijn’s (the artist’s) Wikipedia page proudly declares she is ‘in all likelihood the first woman artist to have exhibited a work incorporating an electric motor’. I mean, talk about feminist milestones! It should be noted here that I’m sure Ms Lijn is a perfectly lovely woman, but art is made to be criticised (is it not?) and we cannot condescend to ignoring that which begs to be attacked. 

The Koan does not belong at Warwick

Where I believe contemporary attitudes towards the Koan range from a general indifference to outright aversion, it wasn’t always this way. Someone, somewhere must have once made the decision to purchase this, and indeed, it is not difficult to imagine some fruit-juice drinking, sandal-wearing professor feigning enjoyment of it when it was initially installed in the early 70s. Even as late as the 1990s clearly there remained warm curiosity towards it, reflected in the fact there existed a comic strip at the time dedicated to the Koan by an ex-student called Steve Shipway, and even a jokey society dedicated to the sculpture, which minimal research reveals is still referenced in Mr Shipway’s LinkedIn profile! The ability to squeeze this much joy and community out of so lifeless an artwork is truly admirable, but it nonetheless feels distinctly postmodern in nature – it is ironic, and self-aware, it does not hide from the absurdity of the sculpture. It does; however, all feel a bit…90s. A bit Blair. The sort of hi-jinx the El Dude brothers would fondly recall having participated in at university. It will never be the nineties again. Young people are more cynical now, more apathetic, take themselves more seriously. Trying to recreate something like that in the 2020s would be nothing less than a grotesque perversion of the otherwise healthy British tradition for self-deprecating humour. The joke just isn’t funny, anymore. 

Not only is the Koan uninteresting and dated when taken in isolation, but it does not belong at Warwick either. Backing this criticism is the (I would suggest) rather uncontroversial idea that public art at a university should represent something about the university itself; should be a method through which the university projects its identity to the nation at large. However, the Koan is totally antithetical to the merits of Warwick. Where Warwick presents itself in comparison to older universities as refreshingly austere and modest, the Koan feels pretentious and pseudo-intellectual. Where Warwick is unashamed of a certain desire for academic excellence, the Koan just looks mediocre. Where Warwick, forged in the late autumn of modernity, presents itself as a university embracing of change, the Koan is ‘of its time’ in the worst possible sense of the phrase. It doesn’t even go far enough, as does say the humanoid rat-thing stood by the bus interchange, as to merit passing it off as some elaborate sketch of absurdist comedy. The Koan may have looked faintly impressive when its architectural competitor was the towering might of Senate House, but next to the gleaming facades of the Oculus and FAB, it begins to look less like a cone and more like a pin. 

The fact we have gotten this far into the article, and I haven’t felt the need to highlight its demonstrative ugliness speaks for itself. It looks cheap, disposable, throwaway – hardly congruent with the dedicated push for ‘sustainability’ by the university. The harsh white metal it is constructed of does not age with the grace of carved stone. Even the heaving brutalist buildings on campus like the library and physics block, that seem to sigh under the weight of their own severity, manage to age with a kind of endearing melancholy, as they become ever more wearied and weathered. The Koan, in contrast, will just look ever cheaper, dirtier.  

It has been resigned to the worst fate – irrelevance

It is beyond the remit of this article to suggest a replacement – I remain unsure as to whether one if even required – but whatever it is should not shy away from the nature of the University of Warwick. It must relate to modern beauties. The beauty of speed, of mass, of scale. The morbid beauty of One Canada Square. In representing us, it should be more corporate, more vital, more vicious: more modern. But not in relation to the tired spasms and intellectualism of post-modernity, but to the optimism and ENERGY that characterised so much early modernist work. The artwork should look UPWARDS, not inwards. We only remain a university in the technical sense of the word, we are – in spirit – a business, and our art should reflect that. 

The Koan is not an ‘icon’. The only people who still think so are probably those, incidentally, who read Boar articles (you know who you are) and take a genuine interest in the university’s identity. The student body at large have moved past it, and this is validated most completely in how little attention is paid to it. How many people even know its name?  

The long twentieth century is finally over, and the shadow it cast is finally receding. A cold sunlight has been thrust upon us, and in this cold sunlight, these twentieth-century mundanities can hide no longer. The twenty-first century is finally here. If anybody actually cared about the Koan, this article might provoke an article in retaliation. I would like it to. But it won’t. Because it has been resigned to the worst fate that can befall an artwork – irrelevance. It simply gets in the way and must be swept aside. Student action can achieve this. Warwick students of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your koans. 

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