They traveled to IUPUI under the cover of darkness; their names, their faces, even their gender all mysteries.
With more miles logged in the past few years than many people rack up during their entire lives, they’re the quintessential road-trip junkies.
They aren’t human—their stony bodies will never speak, cry, or even flinch.
They’ve chosen IUPUI as their next destination.
And they’re here to stay for the next 18 months.
‘Almost like they were torn out of the earth’
No, they aren’t aliens.
Extraterrestrial as they may seem, the 12 burnt-orange figures, life-size, androgynous, and each positioned in unique contortions, are cast-iron and glass creations.
The “Horizons” figures were conceived and created in Iceland, where their internationally renowned sculptor Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir currently lives and works. However, since the figures’ debut at the Katonah Museum in New York in 2007, they’ve barnstormed across the U.S., logging stops in states from Pennsylvania to Texas.
The arrangement of the figures differs with each new location. Thórarinsdóttir said the IUPUI architect sent her images of the installation site, along a path running from the intersection of Blackford and New York streets to University Library, and she offered him input about how the figures could be placed.
“I think they did a wonderful job, as there is connectivity but also space between them,” she said.
Distinct as the sculptures may at first appear, all are united by the single horizontal glass band running across each of their chests.
“This line is the only straight element within this organic being,” Thórarinsdóttir said. “The horizon is close to me as I have a country house on the south coast of Iceland where the sea connects with the sky in an eternal horizontal line.”
The juxtaposition of the smooth, transparent glass strip with the statues’ rough, tree-bark like surface was a calculated decision on Thórarinsdóttir’s part.
“[The glass] opens the figures up to the daylight, contrasting with the heavy closed iron,” she said. “During the day each figures changes depending on where the sun shines.”
As in the contrast between the iron and glass, Thórarinsdóttir tried to convey “the simultaneous strength and vulnerability of the natural world” in her figures.
“They all lean in different directions, take on strange postures, and some are almost falling, so they are in many ways very vulnerable,” she said. “At the same time they are strong, as they manage to stand firm despite their seeming instability.”
Thórarinsdóttir said the figures, which she described as “almost torn out of the earth,” have a deep connection with the trees around them.
“The figures grow up out of the ground, and within their surface texture there are small branches of trees that you can notice if you look carefully,” she said.
Looking closer at the figures is rewarding, especially since Thórarinsdóttir’s sculptures are so life-like that many observers mistake them for real people from a distance.
“For a moment I was wondering why there were students just standing and staring at Herron,” IUPUI student Jennifer Rojas said. “And then I realized they were statues.”
Though eleven of the figures are standing, one is seated on a bench with its arms crossed, a position which Thórarinsdóttir said “sets it apart as an observer of the situation.”
“The viewer can join the seated figure in its frozen moment of contemplation,” she said.
‘Whisper rather than shout’
Thórarinsdóttir has been a figurative artist since she began her career nearly 40 years ago. Her work is characterized by its androgynism, and she said she chose to keep the “Horizons” figures gender-neutral because they are “symbols of humanity.”
“It opens the work to interpretation and keeps them more anonymous,” she said. “You could say that I prefer the work to whisper rather than shout.”
Universal humanity is a theme present throughout Thórarinsdóttir’s work, and she said her intent in the piece is to convey that “we as humans are all connected despite our seeming isolation and differences.”
She said although the figures’ similarity speaks to a universal sameness, one pose in particular resonates with her.
“The reason is that [the figure’s position] is quite strange,” she said. “It’s a bit awkward, which is something I like. We all have our awkward moments. That’s what makes us human.”
Although the genderless figures largely represent the commonalities of the human race, their inspiration is much more specific.
“For the last 20 years, the base for the work is my older son,” Thórarinsdóttir said. “The works may not look like him in the end, but the family thread is there, which brings the work closer to me.”
Toward a more welcoming campus
Chancellor Nasser Paydar is hoping Thórarinsdóttir’s piece will have the same unifying effect on the IUPUI community, so much so that he endorsed it as a crucial part of the recently launched ‘welcoming campus’ initiative.
According to the IUPUI Office of the Chancellor, the initiative, launched in spring 2016, “provides IUPUI the opportunity to reimagine our campus.”
“We want the campus climate to reflect our core values of diversity and inclusion,” the office’s website states. “We want IUPUI as a physical space to inspire students, faculty, staff, and visitors alike. We want to reshape this campus through the eyes of our students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community into a campus that embraces and encourages everyone.”
Paydar endorsed the transformative power of the sculptures in a ‘Report to the Community’ address he delivered Feb. 17.
"This remarkable installation not only speaks to the power of art to transform public space but will also deeply enrich the experiences of visitors to the IUPUI campus," Paydar said. "I can think of no better symbol for the changes that will reshape our campus than Thórarinsdóttir's powerful and compelling installation."
Megan Smith, a Herron student and Ceramics major, agrees with Paydar that the sculptures will contribute to a more welcoming campus.
“The sculptures were designed in a thoughtful way by the artist to really engage the audience,” Smith said. “The placement along the newly-renovated now two-way New York Street was a wise decision, as you can’t miss the sculptures as you are driving west-bound into campus.”
“Sculptures like these make their presence known to passers-by because they are not just hanging on a wall in a gallery or hallway,” she added. “They are in the viewer's space and they can grab your attention just like that.”