Listen to Austin 360 Radio

See This Art: A giant bronze shell echoes eternity in UT medical school plaza

Michael Barnes
Austin 360
"Spiral of the Galaxy" by Marc Quinn as photographed by Paul Bardajiy.

The enormous shell rests silently in an oak-studded plaza.

You can’t miss it. In fact, Marc Quinn’s “Spiral of the Galaxy” is likely the most easily spotted work of art on the verges of the University of Texas campus, second only to Ellsworth Kelly’s “Austin,” the building-as-art at the Blanton Museum of Art. That’s because most of the school’s legacy art, as well as newer works planted by UT’s nationally acclaimed Landmarks public art program, are found deeper inside the urban campus.

In part because the bronze surfaces of the shell readily catch the light during the day and night, passersby in cars automatically glance in its direction. On a fine day — absent a pandemic — “Spiral of the Galaxy” can be seen surrounded by people lingering at more than a dozen tables and ledges in the plaza outside Dell Medical School’s trim and shiny Health Learning Building, opposite the Dell Seton Medical Center on Red River Street.

It’s remarkable that Quinn created the outsized conch in 2013, just a year after area voters approved a comprehensive health plan that included the new school and the medical center. The plaza itself, perhaps not obvious at first, was defined by the presence of large — and thus untouchable — oaks rising to the east of the open space.

Think you know Austin? Quiz: Here are 30 trivia questions only true Austinites can answer

The shell’s substantial pedestal measures approximately 20 feet by 20 feet. Faced on the sides with limestone, it is topped by the same kind of bricks as the plaza, which invites permission to approach the art for closer views and perhaps tactile interaction.

The conch’s gaping mouth, at once inviting and forbidding, faces southwest. The whole western side is so smooth and polished that it reflects images of the surrounding buildings. On an extremely reduced scale, the effect reminds the viewer of Anish Kapoor’s popular “Cloud Gate” in Chicago’s Millennium Park.

The eastern and northern skins of the shell are ridged and rough, just like their natural counterparts. So convincing is Quinn’s conch, one almost expects the wind to produce a loud blast of alarm, calling medical villagers to an assembly.

Inevitably, the onlooker wonders: “How the heck was this made? How was it transported? How was it installed?”

The Landmarks website explains that the conch was scanned in three dimensions, then a mold was created and cast in bronze. The site also quotes Quinn as saying that shells are “the most perfect pre-existing sculptural ‘readymades’ in our natural world.” Stand back and squint a bit and one can imagine that this shell had just washed ashore on some fantastical beach.

Because of its size and exacting execution, an argument could be made that “Spiral of the Galaxy” would fit just as easily outside some suburban corporate headquarters. Yet it is both too playful and, at the same time, too serious to serve as mute symbol of commerce.

Others are reading:Internet-famous, Japanese-style sandwich pop-up comes to Austin

In any case, because of its size and surroundings, “Spiral of the Galaxy” is unlikely to go anywhere soon, unlike the sculptures that once graced the little Bicentennial Park that was razed to build the medical center across Red River Street.

In an eye to the future of the medical school’s campus, the open space is now called a “courtyard,” not a “plaza,” which predicts partially enclosing buildings to the north and east, once the Erwin Center and the Denton A. Cooley Pavilion, along with surface parking, are replaced.

“The sliding scales along which a society measures fragility and strength, ephemerality and endurance, even life and death, are central concerns of Quinn’s art,” the Landmarks website fittingly concludes. “Throughout his career, he has explored the unstable margins of life and the meanings we find in them: the vital interconnectedness of all life forms across time; the desire to still a passing moment or to live forever; and the prospect of living in harmony with nature and other people.”