Off-campus art offers opportunity for beauty, introspection

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Austinites attend the opening of Forever Bicycles, a 2015 sculpture by Ai Weiwei, at the Waller Creek delta on Lady Bird Lake.

Photo Credit: Rachel Zein | Daily Texan Staff

Going to see art off campus is a long journey. My Intro to China professor asked us to visit “Forever Bicycles,” an off-campus sculpture, for extra credit last semester. Although the art installation stood right by Lady Bird Lake, it seemed far away. Going so far from the comfort of the Drag and campus didn’t seem worth it. 

But I’m glad I went. Looking at the sculpture from different angles, I thought of the nature of bicycles versus cars in a car-dominant culture. The towering sculpture forced me to confront power structures in China and how capitalism influences mass production so that everything looks alike, but no product seems individual. Perhaps the same thing can be said of American culture, I thought. 

You should see art off campus for the same reason you party on Sixth Street or wait in line for Franklin’s BBQ: because Austin is bigger than UT’s campus. The Blanton Museum offers an encyclopedic art collection and a contemplative chapel, “Austin,” but off-campus art museums offer more specific, focused experiences that can help us explore our curiosity and challenge our worldviews. 

Art installations force us to come face to face with the structural inequalities that pervade our campus life. Only 5 percent of the UT campus, as a recent Daily Texan series reminds us, is African-American, pointing us toward the community’s lack of representation. Rodney McMillian’s “Against a Civic Death” reminded me of this reality when I visited the Contemporary Austin exhibition. The stark imagery reminded me of the racial disparity on campus and in our nation. 

Art has the power to hold a mirror to society. It freely criticizes the status quo, bringing important issues such as racism and censorship into the minds of viewers. It can make you empathize with your peers who don’t always look like you. It can bend your mind and leave you with more questions than you came with. Most UT students, including myself, consume vast amounts of information, both in our classes and outside the classroom. When one looks at art, we slow down and reflect and contemplate so we can question the world around us. Looking slowly at objects brings focus into our crowded worlds. 

So go off campus. Go take the bus or get a ride with a friend downtown. Check out the installation at the Contemporary Austin. Go to the HOPE Outdoor Gallery, the community-created graffiti park, before it’s torn down and relocated. Support women and their art at the “Women & Their Work” gallery on Lavaca Street. Check out the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, a short walk away from the bikes.  By the time you return to campus, you can better understand yourself and the world around you. 

Wong is a Plan II and government senior from McKinney. He is a senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @calebawong.