Corinne Kenwood / Sun Staff Photographer

September 18, 2016

Artist Profile: Caroline O’Donnell

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If you walk around the Cornell campus at this time of the year, you might be surprised by what you find. The Cornell Council for the Arts 2016 Biennial has just started around campus and one of the most capturing installations is the urchin. It is an enormous white structure in the middle of the Arts Quad. You can’t really tell what it is until you start getting closer. That’s when you see the spikes. The whole outside layer of the structure is covered with these spikes that are oddly familiar. So you get a bit closer and that’s when you see: They are just chairs.

This is Urchin (Impossible Circus),made by CODA for the Biennial. CODA is a studio for architectural and urban research and design led by Caroline O’Donnell, who is also known for her work Party Wall, the winner of MoMA PS1. She has worked with many other artists to create Urchin, but her efforts and influence cannot be underlined enough. To really understand how such an artwork is created, it is necessary to look beyond it and towards the artist and ask them how this came to be.

When I asked why she decided to be an architect, O’Donnell said she doesn’t remember ever wanting to do anything else. She only remembers drawing houses in drawing books when she was only 11, and playing in the constant construction sites in her ever-growing neighborhood. During her childhood, there was always a new house being added to the row of houses, and that was basically her playground. Playing in the foundations is the one significant memory that struck her as an influence on her interest in architecture. Her interest only intensified as she grew up, and at around 17 she decided to choose architecture as a career.

She went on to study in Manchester University, England. That was when she met James Gibson and learned about his ideas on “affordance.” In her words, Gibson’s idea is that “when you first see an apple, the first thing you see is what you can do with it, that you can eat it.” Since then, O’Donnell has also been interested in challenging people’s perceptions of objects.

After university, she worked with builder and theoretician Peter Eisenman in New York. His most prominent idea was that architecture always means something, that “architecture can be read but it should be able to say something about itself.” This really struck her as powerful and she kept working on it. Building on his idea, she started thinking, “if architecture can be read, maybe it can say something about what is outside itself.”

O’Donnell has worked with modified objects ever since. She has created Party Wall for MoMA PS1 in 2013. It was made up of skateboards and brought her first place in the competition. This year’s theme for the Biennial was “Object/Abject Empathies,” and in thinking about empathy for this biennial, O’Donnell defined empathy as “not empathy with people but empathy with objects.” By creating Urchin, she is taking away theinitial and classic view on the object, the chair, playing with people’s perceptions and affordances.

I asked the thought process behind morphing the chair into this artwork. O’Donnell explained, “Turning a chair upside down, making a chair not able to function as a chair forces you to think about the chair differently. Now that you cannot sit in it, you notice other things about chairs. You see the spikiness, the material, the way the light comes through. Then you start asking questions. Who designed them? Who made them? Are they recycled? It forces people to ask questions.” She values the idea of making the audience question regular life and shapes. “When you are walking towards a chair, you normally don’t think about the chair. you don’t think ‘should I sit, should I not sit.’

One of the other principal rules for Urchin was that is acknowledges something in its context. So when O’Donnell decided on placing in between Ezra Cornell and A.D. White statues, she saw that A.D. White’s position was perfect for a deformation in the shape. The dip in the shape relates to the statue’s leg as if it continues through and Urchin has to dip down to let it pass. It is a tiny but effective nod and reaction to the surroundings of the installation.

“What would make me very happy is for someone to walk by and from a distance you think it’s a highly designed object and when you get close you realize, it’s just a chair and I’ve sat in that chair before.”

Urchin is now the center of attention at the Arts Quad, and it definitely adds an air of sophistication as well as interest. Countless students that pass it by every day have to stop and look again. It makes them think, and see new perspectives, empathize with the object. This is what makes Urchin such a strong piece.

Çağla Sokullu is a first-year student in the College of Art, Architecture and Planning. She can be reached at [email protected].