the Sad Truth about the Memorial Union’s “Terrace Chairs on the Town”

by Doug E. L. Haynes

It is sad when a trusted friend makes an error of judgement. Perhaps it is better to let the slip pass unmentioned, but among true friends one hopes that honesty is the best policy and thus I will share my thoughts on the Memorial Union’s ‘Terrace Chairs on the Town” project.

This year the UW Madison Memorial Union celebrates it’s 75th anniversary. The gallery committee wanted to do something that would commemorate that anniversary and create a stir in the same way that Chicago’s cows did a few years ago. The project involves making large scale versions of the memorial Union’s distinctive chairs and commissioning artists to use them as a starting point for an original work of art.

Some time ago the call went out to artists to submit proposals and last fall the chairs were unveiled. The chairs did make the papers (perhaps for the sake of their novelty) and so to some extent they have served their purpose of drawing attention to the commemoration of the anniversary celebration, but I have not noticed an outpouring of love for the chairs that was typical of Chicago’s cows.

At the time that the proposal went out to artists, I had a feeling in my gut that something was not right about this. As time has passed, I my instinct has solidified into particular reasons for disliking the project.

The first problem is that while the Chicago cows project had novelty working in its favor the chairs do not. The element of surprise allowed the cow sculptures to take viewers out of their ordinary existence and transport them to a new place. Since then, this sort of thing has become a trend. Last year Racine had dogs, so I guess I object to being subjected to an idea that was not very original.

The other inherent problem is that the Memoral Union chairs are already a work of art. They have become much beloved for exactly the reason that they are delightful objects. I think the organizers believed that the fact that they are beloved icons would work in favor of the project, but in my opinion the opposite is true. Many of the commissioned works look like union chairs with ugly appendages stuck on. What makes the union chairs beautiful is their simplicity and funtionality.

Another thing that I never noticed about the chairs untill this project is that their beauty is also a function of their scale. The giant chairs created for this project dwarf the viewer and lack the inviting approachability of the regular sized chairs. One might imagine that seeing a large chair might revive delightful childhood memories of swinging one’s feet without being able to touch the floor, but either those memories are buried to deep or my memories of not being really short and not being able do anything without a boost are not that delightful. Whatever is the case, my initial impression was that of a towering monstrosity.

As for the execution of individual works you can judge for yourself. Images of the chairs can be seen at: http://www.union.wisc.edu/75/chairs/

I would hope that the next time the Memorial Union undertakes an ambitious project they will stay away from misguided attempts to pursue secondhand ideas from Illinois.