Tired of the Tire Sculpture?

Daniel Roberts


Pretty much since the day I returned to campus this past September I have publicly lamented the presence of what has been nicknamed the “Tire Monster,” the “Trash Sculpture” and even “Tire-rrhea.” The work is Solid State Change, an atrocity to some and an eco-friendly work of beauty to others.

So on October 25, when the artist Deborah Fisher was scheduled to give a lecture on her sculpture, I knew I had to attend. After all, it was only fair to hear her out.

Fisher said very little about the piece’s meaning. Before creating the work, she had been looking at charts of Vermont’s geology, and she did illustrate for us how the shape of the piece vaguely resembles Middlebury’s bedrock. In terms of the piece’s symbolism, and what it attempts to do, she insisted on repeating that it was all about moving towards a greater understanding of the environment and the world around us as whole— investigating the “outside” of ourselves. The question remains: how does a heap of recycled tires accomplish this?

The lecture really took off when we arrived at the Q&A period. One person asked Fisher politely what she felt about the criticism that her piece does not use the space well— that it looks more like trash, and less like art, because it sits heaped against a wall. Why not put it out in a public space, perhaps on a platform? Fisher answered that this would put the work on a pedestal, and this is not what she wants. She elaborated that she would not even like it to be on a bed of gravel or something similar, because this would put it on a stage. And yet, it is a work of art that the College spent a lot of money on— why not put it on a stage?

Biology professor Steve Trombulak posited, “Your choice of material may be appropriate for New York City, but not for rural Vermont. What do you say to that?” Fisher was speechless. I couldn’t help but feel Trombulak’s bold query, though aggressive, was a fair one. After all, Fisher revealed that in New York, she lives directly next door to a tire recycling plant that gave her the materials for free. This has to make one wonder if the choice of tires was not meaningful, but rather convenient. Trombulak added, “I ask this because the work was commissioned for a specific place and you were paid to create this specifically for Middlebury. It’s not like you made this on a whim, brought it to the flea market, and then the board of trustees walked by and said, ‘Ooh, we want to buy that for the College.’” Fisher answered, “It is what it is. It’s 6,000 pounds of garbage that I screwed together all by myself.” Exactly.

Finally, they said they had time for one more question. I cautiously raised my hand and asked, “You label yourself an environmentalist, and you purport to make environmental art, so I just wonder how you reconcile the fact that a very rich college paid you a lot of money to make this sculpture. Doesn’t that contradict the whole environmental mindset and seem to only reinforce commercialism?” Rather than taking offense, Fisher said, “That is the best question anyone asked today.” Then she thought for a moment before agreeing that, indeed, “That’s the question to be asking right now. It’s true, it’s a great point.” Her avoidance of any real answer is no surprise— what could she really say? No single person can decide how art can or should be taken in conceptual terms.

After the lecture, I went to a dinner with Fisher and some other faculty members and students. We ate our meal and discussed other artworks, as well as philosophies on art and life in general. Fisher was a genuinely interesting woman who had numerous compelling things to say about art, and I found myself intrigued.

I would love to say right here that eating dinner with Fisher and speaking to her face-to-face made me change my mind about the sculpture. Yet, the experience did not at all lead me to “see the light.” I respect Fisher as a person, and I understand and admire the College’s efforts to find provocative art for our campus, but the truth remains: this thing is ugly and detracts from the beauty of our lovely school.

The main defense that people kept making at dinner when we discussed the work’s reception was that, “It got people talking.” This phrase was repeated as though the sparking of resentment alone creates merit for something’s existence. I cannot agree. By that regard, the homophobic hate speech scrawled on the walls of Ross Dining Hall was valuable artwork on our campus, because it inspired discussion and debate.

It’s like Fisher said at one point during her lecture: “In a cultural movement that feels like individuals have no power, I believe Solid State Change is one person’s way of making an impact.” It’s true, she did make an impact; she got us talking. Yet there was a physical impact as well— she plopped down some trash onto our otherwise pristine home.


5 Responses to “Tired of the Tire Sculpture?”

  1. 1 oscar December 7, 2007 at 9:25 pm

    “genius” in art has nothing to do with beauty or ugliness. make no mistake, this piece of artwork is brilliant. it may be disgusting, obnoxious, undersized (or oversized) or aesthetically unappealing. the fact is that right now we are discussing it (or at least i’m discussing it with myself) because it is provoking. it led dan roberts to such a visceral response that he had to write an article.

    what do we want in art. as narrow-minded professor steve trombulak noted, what is ugliness doing at this campus? well, i guess middlebury is free of “trash” or urban waste only in the sense that the nearby processing plants and factories are located on the other side of town. or that our own waste is dumped out of sight, beyond the golf course. middlebury is only pristine in that the college meticulously maintains a certain illusion (much like the illusion of fantasy in disneyland).

    so – what are we complaining about when we get agitated about Solid State Change? That there is trash and “ugliness” in the environment? YES. Exactly. That’s the point. And it’s not a coincidence that this statement occurs in front the building dedicated to understanding this contorted and not-always-pretty relationship with the environment.

  2. 2 Mary December 13, 2007 at 2:12 am

    …But couldn’t one argue, Oscar, that Middlebury is an expensive place and that we parents who pay so much for our kids to go there don’t necessarily WANT (and have not chosen) to have any “reminder” of the “trash and ugliness in the world” on that campus?

    When we visited on Parents’ Weekend, we really did believe that sculpture was construction debris left over from the building of that beautiful new environmental building.

  3. 3 Toren '11 December 13, 2007 at 8:51 pm

    Forget all that stuff about Middlebury students living in this isolated, expensive, Disneyland illusion. Maybe we pay a lot to be here and we shouldn’t have to look at an ugly heap of rubber, maybe it is “great art” because it brings us out of our fantasy and reminds us of the real world. I don’t care. My problem with this “art” has nothing to do with Middlebury students being spoiled, and nothing to do with money, it’s that we LIVE here. This is our HOME.
    Again, we LIVE here. Picture the house you grew up in. Let’s say the state or federal government comes in and erects an ugly tire scuplture or a live-sized model of a box that a homeless person lives in, in order to promote awareness of these issues. You are powerless to remove it, and they keep it there with the justification that it “provokes discussion”. Now a college is a strange mixture of public and private space, but why would anyone want to fill their home with things that are provocative rather than sentimental or aesthetically pleasing? I sure don’t. I’m going to spend the vast majority of the next four years of my life here, and I don’t want to look at something incredibly ugly on the basis that it reminds me of the other side of the railroad tracks, or something like that. There’s plenty of oppotunity to remind ourselves how lucky we are. But I don’t want to have that reminder planted right in the middle of my home.

  4. 4 Anonymous December 18, 2007 at 2:13 am

    Did ugly tire art prompt Dan Roberts to write this, or rather was it an attempt to pat himself on the back for his biting, yet insightful commentary? Congrats for having the best question of the day, but I’m interested in tire art, not hearing how many professors congratulated you for your wit.

  5. 5 Oscar December 20, 2007 at 12:27 am

    first off, Mary, I’m interested in why you sent your child to school to begin with? was it to create a bucolic fantasy? and, moreover, does this really have anything to do with you getting your money’s worth for your child’s education. Granted that you do not want your children to be reminded of the trash in the world, why not put the $200,000 you’ve paid middlebury over four years and invest in some legal narcotics (over-the-counter will be fine) and a ski condo for your child – that way your child can imagine this trashless world in a mindless stupor at probably half the price.

    also, Toren, i’d like to understand better how this topic we are discussing, “art” as you put it, does not have to do with money or being spoiled. in fact, i think the point is that not everyone, nor every institution of higher learning, can afford to pay $200,000 (coincidentally about the same that Mary has paid for her child’s education) for a piece of sculpture. why was this much money paid? are we (as a community) spoiled because we are able to pay for things like this, or because we feel we should? i think these questions about money are very pertinent. but, as you note – correctly, i believe – money is not everything.

    however, i’m not sure how i feel about your point that this has to do with a more fundamental thing than money, namely: home. what is home? you seem to insinuate that we all live/lived in something you call a “house”. personally, i’m offended. i live in a trash can. but what about people that live in apartments, in the middle of a city perhaps, or right across from something ugly, like a railroad track or a homeless person’s cardboard box? and what about that person’s box? is that not a home? i guess what you’re saying is that this sculpture in some way reminds you of how other people live – of what other people’s homes are like. that’s sounds pretty reasonable to me. i think that your philosophy of “not in my backyard” is sort of hurtful to those who don’t come from a “house” with a backyard and whose lives don’t conform to your sanctimonious concept of home.

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