Xu Zhen, "Hello" (2021), bronze, stainless steel, paint (photograph by Altair Brandon-Salmon)

A raised concrete square lies between Stanford University’s law school and its flagship library. Lined with benches and nestled underneath large, hospitable cedar trees, there’s nothing expressly wrong with the spot, a remnant of the entryway to what once was a library, demolished in 2014. Steps away from Meyer Green — a favored gathering place for undergraduates looking to suntan and socialize while performatively toting class readings — and a short walk from the center of campus, nothing inherently prevents the square from getting more foot traffic. Nevertheless, it’s rarely frequented.

A monumental 15-foot sculpture of a twisted Corinthian column by Xu Zhen, coyly titled “Hello” (2021), arrived to revitalize that spot a week ago. Digitally sculpted and made using traditional bronze techniques, the sculpture takes an icon of antiquity and refreshes it for the modern era, melding East and West, classical and contemporary.

“Ruins are part of daily life, of the urban and landscape texture in countries with a classical past,” Giovanna Ceserani, associate professor of classics at Stanford, wrote in a statement. “‘Hello’ mobilizes all this deep history for us with its transformation of the column, inherently fixed in shape and function, into a moving creature.”

Zhen’s piece promises to revive the sordid reputation of the area, long associated with nondescript graduate students clad in head-to-toe black pausing there suspiciously and friendlessly. Making its appearance three years after it was initially commissioned by the university’s Public Art Committee in 2019, the site-specific work by the Chinese conceptual and multimedia artist was made with an eye to Stanford’s “important role in terms of innovations, developments and discovery of new talent,” according to a statement by the artist.

“Hello” is the first in a series of public artworks that will be temporarily showcased for a two-year stretch on the elevated patch as part of the Stanford Plinth Project. The program is modeled after what London has done with the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, initially meant to prop up an equestrian statue of William IV that was never realized due to insufficient funds. In its place, in 1998, the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) opted for placing a succession of contemporary works on the plinth rather than bearing the burden of making a permanent commission.

“There is something very emphatic and permanent about most putting something really big and heavy down in a particular spot,” Nicholas Jenkins, a member of Stanford’s Public Art Committee, told Hyperallergic. “Nothing is going to stay there forever — and that changes people’s feelings about it,” he noted, suggesting that people might be more attentive to art when they know it will eventually be gone.

Public art like “Hello” offers viewers an opportunity to engage in two ways, Jenkins proposed. On one level, it becomes “part of the furniture of the world that you live in… you don’t always react in a conscious and cerebral way to things like a tree that you really enjoy,” he said. On another level, viewers might sit down at its base and peer at it, silently formulating thoughts or otherwise theatrically pontificating about it in an intellectual battle of wills amongst friends. 

The Stanford Plinth Project will bring a series of public artworks to a previously neglected spot (photograph by Altair Brandon-Salmon)

Asked about his personal relationship with the sculpture, Jenkins said that he was still “metabolizing” it, but called it “humorous,” “surreal,” and “edgy.” “It’s a little bit like a monster rearing up and looking at you — an inanimate object that suddenly seems to have acquired life,” he offered. He liked that it wasn’t “hagiographic or celebratory of some famous general.”

It’s indeterminate what will happen to the sculpture after its two-year stint is up, and where it will go depends in part on the public response. And what has been that response so far? 

Altair Brandon-Salmon, a PhD candidate in art history, said that he likes to think of it “as Stanford’s very own sandworm from Dune.” Layo Laniyan, a senior majoring in English, said that when he viewed the photos, he “thought it was a prank at first,” assuming “it was some augmented reality-type thing,” surprised to later see the physical thing on the way to visiting a friend. He reported that students were having fun coming up with subversive names for the sculpture — one in the mix being “throat goat.”

Jenkins, who is also an English professor, said metaphorically, “It’s sort of like seeing an animal come out of a clearing, and you’re lucky enough to be able to see it for a while before it just runs off somewhere and you don’t know where it is anymore.”

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.