Isabelle Jung / Graphics Editor

April 20, 2024

Critique of a Hotelie’s Napkin Swan

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Many consider Cornell University to be the most prestigious college in the country for architectural design. It has seen cohorts of the world’s most qualified artists and engineers come and go. Lawrence Halprin ’39 won the National Medal of Arts in 2002. Richard Artschwager ’48 built altars for the Catholic Church and had his sculptures exhibited in the Whitney Museum. Hota Lee ’27 is next in a long line of Cornellian artists to endeavor to upheave the American sculptural tradition through the zoomorphic arrangement of fabric. 

The Statler Practicum is an opportunity for students in the Nolan School of Hotel Administration to experience the typical tasks of a hotel employee. One part of the practicum is dedicated to the folding of napkin swans. Lee’s swan is a marked development in the practice of artistic napkin folding — its abstract and understated features resist the contemporary preference for highfalutin napkin art. 

It does not make a bold choice in its material — the use of terry cloth is traditional in napkin swan artistry. The rich texture of the cloth, though, imitates the appearance of ruffled feathers, lending to a sense of depth that Lee otherwise fosters in their intricate folds. Some folds are unnoticeable from long distance, adding to the piece’s dimension. Its shape casts dramatic shadows, evoking the chiaroscuro of The Ecstasy of St. Teresa by Gianlorenzo Bernini in its effort to emphasize the contrast of light and dark. Like The Ecstasy, the swan deflects light from above to appear godly, like it is floating.

Its lack of facial features might appear lazy or uncreative to some, but it creates a sense of intrigue in the swan’s anonymity. Who is it? What is it feeling? The swan’s head faces skyward, suggesting confidence. The wings are slightly lifted and drawn back, creating suspense — is it going to take flight? It is easy to project one’s own feeling onto the swan, a vague figure of confidence. 

Clearly influenced by Dadaism, Lee challenges our preconceived notions of what media should and should not be used in serious sculptural work. Like Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, Lee takes an unconventional medium, a napkin, and transforms it into an abstraction. Some may look down on the use of a urinal, in the case of Duchamp, or a napkin, in the case of Lee, as a medium in serious artwork. But it is hard to imagine what other medium could express the free spirit of a Hotelie.
In The Sopranos, Tony tells Dr. Melfi about the seagulls in his dreams. Melfi asks, “What else is a water bird?” Tony remembers the ducks in his pool that had reminded him of his own family. “I was sad to see them go. … That’s the link, a connection; I’m afraid I’m going to lose my family.” For Tony Soprano, the water bird is a symbol of social cohesion — they migrate together, and form communities with complex languages. But in Lee’s piece, it stands alone. It’s in the Hotelie spirit, we suppose, to want to stand out from the crowd.