three weeks ago:
Alchemist, originally on loan for the duration of MIT’s 150th anniversary celebration, can now call the Institute home. The sculpture, which sits between the Student Center and Massachusetts Avenue, represents a thinking man comprised of numbers and math functions.
The sculpture was commissioned by an anonymous alumnus and was gifted to the Institute “in honor of all the alumni who have helped support MIT over the years.” According to Associate Provost Philip S. Khoury, the alumnus did not plan to make the donation permanent, but after visiting the campus during the 150th anniversary celebration, he “was so moved by the events … that he decided to gift the sculpture.”
As this is probably the best piece of public art to appear in these parts in many a year, this is great news for both MIT and the city at large. I've gotten a few responses from folks regarding the sculpture along the lines of "But it's just a guy made of numbers; it's too obvious!" I'm afraid, however, that I must disagree: accessible metaphor is - or should be - a sine qua non of public art. Thus Alchemist is great in the same way that, say, the Statue of Liberty or Rodin's The Thinker are great - we basically understand what it's about as soon as we see it.
But there more subtle dimensions to the work as well. Unlike the Rodin, Plaume's "Thinker" isn't struggling with inventing the wheel or building a fire, but is instead manipulating the symbols of today's intellectual discourse. And he has evaporated into the field of abstraction he has conjured - yet the remaining structure still bears his figure, his human imprint. Thus to step into it - as many people do - is to enter, literally, a "thought-space," a ghostly mathematical mind; a better metaphor for the Institute itself could hardly be imagined (although that medieval title may suggest that even the latest mathematical conjuring may, in the end, be merely a mystical trick). There's also a reason the work resembles a jungle gym, and why kids love to hang on it; Plensa's alchemist may be in peaceful repose, but his mind is at exuberant play.
Plus the sculpture is simply very elegant and beautiful - you can see for yourself at 77 Mass. Ave. in Cambridge. Congratulations are due to MIT, and thanks are due to that anonymous donor, whoever and wherever he or she may be.