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. 

Comments (2)

  • What’s the matter? Koan you take a joke?

  • Petros Cowley

    Strung from the web of your corporate ventriloquists, what sycophantic vassal-talk they’ve had you sputter, Jack Stevenson: “In representing us, it should be more corporate.” “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 joke isn’t funny anymore.” Is this last one an opinion, or a command?
    As a first aside, gravely embarrassed that I am to even be including this, this is not, as certain poor-sighted individuals may take it to be, some boring, platitudinous defence of gratuitously offensive/dark humour. That deathly boring debate, which in any case is only ever one of confusion and subterranean hermeneutics, is besides the point. Anyway…
    If one could ever have reason to appreciate the Koan – and I’ve never before – then it would be now, upon reading your frankly grotesque article, simply for the vain joy – and isn’t joy so precious these days? – that comes with knowing that it bothers you by being there. You excoriate the poor and innocent thing upon the following trite and eroded grounds, as though intentionally travestying the thought processes of some corporate P.R. team, thus so clumsily betraying your masters: its supposedly eminent racial/cultural insensitivity, its “pseudo-intellectuality” – that is, its lack of either complexity or seriousness, its lack of ‘value’ – and, chiefly, most vile of all, how it does not “represent” the “business” that you seem to want to pride our university for being, corrupted individual you must be. (Do you study in the WBS by any chance? That or perhaps economics…)
    “Picking stories and symbols as they please.” “There is no genuine understanding or affection displayed here, it is merely a reference.” “…in a 21st century world where ‘cultural appropriation’ as an explanatory mechanism carries so much weight, it falls decidedly flat.” My God! Do you not grow tired, you most punctilious employee? A mere light-hearted reference to Buddhist culture, “merely a reference”, as part of a pun aimed not at all at Buddhist culture itself, and, immediately you deem it to be racially problematic – the mere fingerless mention of a different culture is racially problematic, now, then. (Forgive me for using racially and culturally synonymously, if for some reason that bothers you.) How dare we mention the Buddhists! Hmm… Can ethnic and cultural minorities not also partake in the simple joys of absurdist humour – to ask as though absurdist humour was some kind of originally-evil, ideological product of white/western supremacy, some vestige of colonialism, etc. – or must their mere presence, their mere mention, the idea of them, these minorities, these magical mystery others, invoke at once some crippling and all-pervasive, inviolable atmosphere of pity and grave deliberation – as though a church be thrown over our heads, a moral net. Alas! We are crushed under the weight of millennia!
    Rather than viewing the Koan as a silly, honest pun which just so happens to make a silly, honest anchoring in Buddhist culture, you warn of – and, if they do really exist, thus ensure to produce more – people looking at it only through the lens of it being anchored in Buddhist culture, people who will most certainly, you seem to think, thus view it as some sort of commentary piece on Buddhist culture, bereft of humour they are. And, oh my! what is this! – it does not take the tone of pity and grave deliberation! It is not a display of “genuine understanding or affection”! How dare you have fun in the presence of these other cultures! How dare you let them in on it! How dare you let these – as your pernicious rhetoric requires them be – simply and only objects of pity and grave deliberation, not the human beings who they in fact are, the individuals, but the strangely pure incarnations of some magical mystery culture from the moon. ‘We are criminals, they are objects, and I shall conveniently elide over any explanation of this! From now on, nobody shall have fun! I decree today that the joke is not funny anymore!’ – thus you cry out, dangling from the strings with which the corporate insects have you entangled. The Koan is not racist, Jack Stevenson. It is a cone.
    As another aside, I do not wish to be sanctimonious here, do not wish to play the saint. And so let me say here that I surmise myself to be a profoundly dislikable a man. What I merely demand here is honesty.
    But I don’t think you really hold these views, of course; I don’t draw from what you’ve said that you are some sort of white supremacist, some racist conspirator plotting your future subjugation of the non-whites. (In fact, I don’t even know what race you are, only that your name sounds English.) Of course not. It’s only the sloppiness of your (your ventriloquists’ (?)) tactics which inadvertently attributes these beliefs to you – an accident, we all have accidents. As do corporate P.R. zombie squads – not because you care about race issues, whether you otherwise do or do not – you mention the Buddhist issue simply to placate, and thus manipulate, those individuals who do happen to care about such issues. ‘Oh, what loud and importunate voices they have, those pesky lib-tards! What a nuisance they are! Why must they care about being ethical all the time? What obstacles to my evil designs!’ Camouflaged – and poorly camouflaged – treating them as the impetuous fools you make yourself appear clearly to think of them, you attempt to trick them into playing your real game. And what game is this? Hmm… ‘Fun and simple joys – confound these “kitsch, and vulgar”, barbaric atavisms to the primordial darkness of the bygone centuries where they belong! The new, serious young cynics – as I christen them – wiser than laughter, ever frowning out unto the mottling horizon, shall finally have their kingdom! Away with your smile! Let us be serious now, devoted employees!’
    I mean, do you hear yourself? “We only remain a university in the technical sense of the word, we are – in spirit – a business, and our art should reflect that.” Woe be to art! Woe be to education! This should absolutely not be the identity we want for our university, for ourselves, you grubby vassal. At best, it should remain our dirty little secret, the dark, underhand way that we unfortunately for the moment must, under a Conservative anti-intellectual swine government, sustain what little we have left to claim of what I and anyone deserving to be there believes a university should be, or, rather, to be less like who I criticise, what is not what we believe it shouldn’t be.
    So how to conclude my ramblings? I shall quite simply copy you.
    As you so kindly remind us, the long twentieth century is finally over. Its once resplendent sunlight wanes ever-rapidly. And is that a Deliveroo advert I see projected onto those impenetrable clouds, those black and impenetrable clouds of exhaust fumes who now encroach from all horizons, portents of my death? Stood marvellously upon my Koan, I watch in suppressed despair as all around me my world rots with an insidious corporatism. I watch the parasitic morality-worms eviscerate of my once dear friends their minds and their spirits, making of them puppets. Away, LinkedIn! Away from me, you vile beast! Off my Koan! Shoo, you monster! I despair, but it is futile. Disciplined, possessed, these puppets shall crawl about the hellscape, feasting and regurgitating upon the rot, cannibalising, then at last dying their insidious deaths and with their corpses thus providing yet more sustenance for the rot that it may flourish evermore! No! Why on earth would anyone be passionate about this role at a supermarket! Go away, suit! Down from my cone! Repugnant creature! That is what you are becoming, Jack Stevenson, an (I pray unwitting) puppet; that is what we too, all in our turn, shall become. The rot rises, threatens me upon my cone, and I can only pray, areligious man that I am, that you are not quite yet entirely hollowed, Jack, that somewhere you still feel guilt, still laugh; that there may be yet somewhere deep in your dark and ravaged soul one lone cinder pulsing still maroon in the faltering puffs of your feint and final breaths, those raspy breaths scuttling through the chasm; that you could offer me some company in these final despairing moments. I do not hate you, Jack Stevenson. I’ve no idea who you are, but, rather, I miss you. Yet what awful things you think for money. Impotent, pathetic little man I am, I now vainly implore you to climb up here onto my Koan and enjoy humanity’s final dusk at my side, for it has been a glorious few millennia that we’ve had, my dwindling friend. In this final hour, as sky and rotten ground draw towards in the exhaust fume gloaming, those once vast and azure skies now but that distant point of glitter fleeing into the corporate darkness above, out from the susurrating abyss of our species’ night, I shout now atop the Just Eat soundtrack to whatever humanity you have left in you, Jack Stevenson, and I speak desperately, with more seriousness than your young and serious cynics could ever fathom speaking with, those flesh-dolls strewn across the rotting hellscape which surrounds us: With no hope left for anything, we remaining humans – us somnolent, reminiscing nihilists – we have very, very few souvenirs of our old and joyous lives left still to clutch onto; very few nostalgias remain. And one of these rugged old artefacts is that very absurdist humour you claim to be not corporate enough for our campus, too racist, too post-modern, that you wish to remove and replace with some grotesque monument to the billionaires. Please, let me die laughing up here on my Koan, Jack Stevenson, not fretting about how our campus isn’t corporate enough. Don’t be so awful, Jack. Let us keep our Koan, let us stay up here and laugh at silly jokes as we pretend we aren’t dying, up here on our Koan. Let that final cinder go out on its own – no need to stomp on the dying. You know yourself what vertiginous denial you’re in to be talking of optimism – and of course they call it optimism.

    Protect our Koan! Who cares if it’s ugly? At least it’s honest. Very few things ever are.

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