The Bench at Barnard Explains Himself
Every week, series blogger Rebecca Farley gives a platform to Columbia’s (literally) unheard voices. Today, she chats with the Barnard bench, a sculpture by Jenny Holzer.
The marble bench in front of Barnard Hall is a puzzling piece of art. It is a bench, though not one that appears made for sitting. The inscriptions on the bench read: “Stupid people shouldn’t breed” and “it’s crucial to have an active fantasy life.” The statements are puzzling; both give advice, but the advice seems abrupt, rough, almost rude. Why is it crucial to have an active fantasy life? And why should stupid people not have kids? I decided to take these questions to the source: the bench himself.
At the beginning of our interview the bench seems nervous. He starts asking questions as soon as I arrive, anxiously asking for details about the interview.
“How long will this take?” he asks first.
“However long you’d like,” I assure him.
He wonders where the interview will be published, who will read it, whether or not there will be a photo, and should he polish his marble if there is going to be a photo. Once I’ve answered his litany of questions, I try my best to ease the anxious bench into the interview.
“I like your location,” I tell him. “The shrubbery around here is nicely organized; I really think it looks beautiful in spring.”
“Mm-hmm,” he intones. He still seems anxious; I feel that he is constantly trying to assess me or guess my next action.
Regardless, the bench is a beautiful piece of art. His sleek marble body is gleaming in the late winter sun, the grey etchings of marble striation looking like the first signs of earth under melting snow. He is a wonderfully designed bench. The rectangular prism that makes up his body is free of blemishes or marks; the marble itself feels like the surface of a laptop, clean and smooth.
“May I ask about the engravings on your side?”
“Yes. I thought we’d get there soon. They’re a bit of an albatross, aren’t they? But I suppose they’re my cross to bear in life.:
“Well do you agree with the statements?” I ask.
He pauses at this question, his anxiety departing for the moment.
This surprises me. I ask him to explain.
“Of course it is crucial to have an active fantasy life. I can speak as a bench; if I did not entertain fantasies during my days at the front of Barnard College, I would be a sincerely depressed bench. As for the other statement, I suppose I agree with its placement rather than the direct message. Does that make sense?”
“The statement makes fun of the speaker. First of all, no educated person uses the word ‘stupid’ to refer to another human. We must at this point be aware that no human is ‘stupid.’ Things are stupid. It is stupid that it is March and still below freezing. It is stupid that another human would judge another man’s intelligence. The person who calls someone else stupid is himself stupid because he cannot recognize the intelligence that exists within each person. Then there’s the word ‘breed.’ Who says that?” The bench laughs.
“That’s a good question. It is a pretty gross way to talk about having kids.”
“Of course! The person that would say aloud ‘stupid people shouldn’t breed’ is himself obviously a disgusting imbecile. I doubt anyone agrees with this statement engraved on my side. More likely, they see it, and laugh at the imbecile who would say such a thing. I don’t tell people not to breed; I remind people to laugh at the ignorance of imbeciles.”
Now I laugh. The bench has just performed an impressive analysis of Jenny Holzer’s work. I won’t read the bench’s engravings the same way again.
Rebecca Farley is a sophomore who leads a very active fantasy life and thinks the word “breed” is up there with “moist” and “orifice” as one of the grossest words.
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