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Elyn Zimmerman’s Sudama Unveiled on AU’s Campus

Notable sculptural installation gifted by National Geographic Society enhances AU’s campus

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Sudama on the AU CampusSince September, it’s been impossible to miss the construction in the ellipse behind American University’s Kay Spiritual Life Center. This month, the gates were removed to reveal the transformation—five enormous granite boulders and smaller accent rocks weighing more than 450,000 pounds total, which surround a crescent-shaped pool of running water. These elements comprise Sudama, a monumental sculptural installation by American artist Elyn Zimmerman. The National Geographic Society gifted Sudama to AU and is funding all aspects of the complex installation.

“Art has the power to connect, and with the acquisition of Sudama, AU is enhancing its role as a convening arts institution in DC. Art is at the very heart of AU's engagement with the local community. Zimmerman's tranquil installation will provide students, faculty, staff, visitors, and the broader DC community with a truly peaceful and contemplative space that’s open to all," says Linda Aldoory, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Sudama creates an on-campus oasis among the trees and grass. “A reflective space—literally and figuratively,” says Jack Rasmussen, director and curator of the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center. “You see yourself, your surroundings, see the water, the smooth, polished stone, in that very special space.”

"Sudama." Photo by Dylan Singleton

Sudama’s reveal on AU’s campus completes a journey that began in downtown Washington, DC. The work, then titled Marabar, was originally commissioned for the plaza outside the National Geographic Society’s downtown headquarters in 1981. It was Zimmerman’s first major sculptural commission. Rasmussen noted the work’s prominent place in the history of landscape sculpture. “This was a major, ambitious installation. Women artists just didn’t get commissions like this at that time.”

After earning her MFA from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1974, Zimmerman shifted from a focus on painting and photography to the large-scale installations she is best known for. When Marabar was commissioned, Zimmerman was given the freedom to be creative with the design. “The one caveat from the client was that the plaza design was to feature rocks and water,” she says. She found inspiration in the temples and caves of India following travel there in the 1970s, and in reading E. M. Forster’s novel A Passage to India (1924), where Forster describes the fictional Marabar Caves based on the real, ancient Barabar Caves in the Bihar state in northeast India.

“The Marabar Caves, with their rough natural exteriors and highly polished interiors, became my solution to the project—not as caves but as massive rough granite rocks with one, sometimes two, mirror-polished sides—to look as if a gigantic geode had been cracked open to straddle the 60-foot-long pool of water,” Zimmerman says. From its completion in 1984, the work remained an iconic fixture in front of the National Geographic Society’s headquarters.

"Sudama." Photo by Dylan Singleton

A New Home at AU

In 2019, the National Geographic Society announced major renovation plans for its headquarters, including for the plaza that originally housed Marabar. Zimmerman worked with National Geographic Society to find the sculpture a new home. Zimmerman and representatives from the Society visited several potential sites, including other universities, and ultimately chose the ellipse at American University. “It seemed to be a great location,” Zimmerman says. “It’s not at all the same as National Geographic. There was more sunlight, more open. It was a good fit.”

The sculpture needed to be reconfigured for the new space. “The site is totally different from the National Geographic headquarters. Instead of a rectangular narrow granite plaza between buildings, the new location is a large oval space with grass and trees. I responded to the difference by making the pool longer and crescent shaped and adjusting the relationships of the large rocks to the changed form of the pool,” Zimmerman explains.

With a new design planned, the boulders were loaded onto flatbed trucks, driven four miles to AU’s campus, and put into place with cranes. Zimmerman says, “I felt the work needed a new identity given its new location, and I titled it Sudama after one of the real-life Barabar caves described in Forster’s novel.”

"Sudama." Photo by Dylan Singleton

Academic Connections

As the AU community experiences the sculpture up close for the first time, the potential to unite departments on campus through academic programming is already underway. The AU Museum is partnering with the Department of Performing Arts on a potential site-specific public performing arts project this fall. The proposed 30-minute performance will activate the sculpture space through a technological interplay between Nancy Jo Snider, Hurst Senior Professorial Lecturer, on cello, Associate Professor and computer musician William Brent, visiting artist and dancer Miřenka Čechová, and Ross Karre (Oberlin Conservatory Associate Professor of Percussion).

“This is a celebration—the sculpture holds people. It makes you think. It does what a sculpture should do. It causes you to stop, be with it, and place yourself among it, and to see where that takes you,” says Snider.  

Rasmussen agrees. As he reflects on the beautification of AU’s campus over the years, he says, “This is a major work of site-specific art that ties together architecture, art, and the land.”

Sudama was gifted to AU during the Change Can’t Wait campaign which creates transformative educational opportunities, advances research with impact, and builds stronger communities.