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Eye of the Sky 

Thursday, Jun 2 2005
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Photo by Reed Hutchison
Early one morning last week, two members of UCLA’s facilities management crew cut out a small patch of grass in the middle of a wide lawn directly behind Royce Hall. The men, both named Mike, exposed a concrete pad with four 1-inch-diameter, stainless-steel bolts — and then they waited. The pad had been poured two weeks before, in anticipation of the arrival this morning of a new sculpture, donated by the artist, called L’Occhio de Cielo (Eye of the Sky). The work, three concentric 17-inch-wide steel rings arranged like an offset bull’s-eye, had cleared customs in Long Beach and was now en route.

Things were still quiet when the artist arrived. Sixty-five-year-old Eliseo Mattiacci was instantly recognizable. His “uniform,” as he called it — black Patagonia vest, red shirt over black jeans, and black Vans — looked neither professorial nor even vaguely academic. His white hair, which stands up in long, electrified strands, was almost too vivid. Then there was his gait: He moved his feet by barely lifting his Vans off the pavement, while his back arched slightly forward as if he were hefting a hunk of steel.

Mattiacci marched straight for the concrete pad. Letting go of his red rolling valise — which he marooned behind him on the path — he began checking the bolts and the pad. Speaking in Italian to his young translator, he promptly declared, “The washers are insufficient.” The four pieces of metal, cut from quarter-inch-thick stainless steel, were 3 inches square, and looked stout enough to hold down the Eiffel Tower.

An hour later, a crane arrived and the operator quickly positioned it on the lawn. Behind it, on a flatbed truck, was the sculpture, in a crate the size of a grand piano. Mattiacci, lighting an Antico Toscano, a wrinkled dry cigar of the kind Clint Eastwood smoked in High Plains Drifter, looked on as the crate was placed carefully on the grass and pried open, unveiling the sculpture.

“A year and a half ago I saw this space and it inspired this sculpture,” Mattiacci said, resting one foot on the edge of the outer steel circle. UCLA has one of the country’s best collections of modern sculpture — with works by Auguste Rodin, Henry Moore, Isamu Noguchi and David Smith — housed in the Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden. Mattiacci’s installation, his first permanent exhibition in the U.S., is part of a campus plan to place new pieces outside the Murphy. Next spring, a torqued ellipse by Richard Serra will be unveiled accompanying the opening of the Eli Broad arts center.

“I am interested in the motion of the universe,” Mattiacci continued. The bands of untreated corten steel — which will subtly change color with the weather and seasons — seem to orbit around each other, implying the movement of the planets in a solar system. The 7-foot-high, one-ton piece “could be an homage to Galileo,” Mattiacci added, referring to the Florentine heretic’s insistence that the Earth is not the center of the universe. “It’s not clear if it is we who are looking through this at the sky or the sky that’s looking at us.”

On the first try, the crane lowered the sculpture into place, effortlessly positioning it on the four bolts. Barely kissing the ground, the essentially hollow piece was weightless, suspended between earth and sky. “Champagne!” said the artist.

Moments later, L’Occhio was level, but as the nuts were being threaded onto the bolts, Mattiacci intervened. He removed a set of washers sandwiched between the nuts and his steel work. Handing them out like trophies, he said, “They’re ugly, of a different material, and they don’t serve any purpose.”

Mattiacci then unfurled a plumb bob, dropping the brass weight toward the ground. Squinting at the string, he checked to be certain his sculpture was standing parallel to the line. Then he lay down on the ground, exposing his colorful Dario Fo socks, and, using a giant Sharpie, blackened the bolt heads and nuts. The shiny stainless steel was detracting from the natural rust color of the Eye.

Standing away from the work, someone said it had a telescopic effect. The hills to the west seemed to be drawing closer. Mattiacci disagreed. “No, it is proportioned like Hollywood. It is in CinemaScope. It is a wide-angle perspective. I don’t want to see small inhabitants of Mars but big planets.”

With that, he gave his sculpture a hard thrust with the sole of his shoe, setting the three interlocking circles in motion. “It is kinetic,” he said, “like a spring. It has to bounce. It is a hymn to dynamics.”

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