Once Threatened Iconic Sculpture on National Geographic Society Campus, Saved by The Cultural Landscape Foundation, is Relocated to American University

By Editorial Team on May 2, 2023
Courtesy of Cultural Landscape Foundation.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) hailed today’s opening of the installation Sudama by the acclaimed artist Elyn Zimmerman on the American University campus. The work is principally composed of five large granite boulders, weighing some 450,000 pounds, arrayed around a crescent-shaped water feature; some of the boulders have highly polished and reflective surfaces, mirroring one another across the pool. Sudama is a reconfiguration of a site-specific installation known as Marabar that was created for the National Geographic Society (NGS) campus in Washington, DC and was completed in 1984; it was Zimmerman’s first large-scale installation. The work had been threatened with demolition to accommodate a partial campus redesign.

“Though we regret the loss of Marabar at its original location, we are pleased that its creator, artist Elyn Zimmerman, with the support of National Geographic, retained the ability to control its reconfiguration and relocation to the American University campus,” said Charles A. Birnbaum, TCLF’s President and CEO. “Had TCLF not intervened beginning in March 2020, when the artist was resigned to the loss of one of her most important works, Zimmerman’s installation would likely have been demolished.”

A brief timeline of the relocation of Marabar
In a November 29, 2017, letter to the artist, NGS said Marabar would need to be removed to facilitate a “re-design of the courtyard” and set a deadline for Zimmerman to notify NGS of her intent. The letter noted: “If you do not let us know by then of your intent to move the sculpture, the sculpture will need to be removed by us.”

TCLF learned of the threat to the artwork in early March 2020 and reached out to Zimmerman to advocate on Marabar’s behalf.  On March 31, 2020, TCLF officially designated the work an at-risk Landslide® site. TCLF contacted and consulted with regulatory agencies and commissions, provided expert testimony, mounted a strategic communications campaign, and galvanized the support of other advocates nationally. TCLF also solicited more than two dozen letters of support for saving Marabar from leaders in the art world, landscape architects, architects, journalists and others, including New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, artist Mary Miss, and Whitney Museum of American Art Director Adam Weinberg who called the work a “masterpiece.”

On March 4, 2021, TCLF, working in collaboration with Zimmerman and NGS, announced that a resolution has been reached to prevent the demolition of Marabar. NGS offered to relocate the work at their expense and under Zimmerman’s direction. The artist considered several locations and concluded the American University campus was the proper new home. She also decided the work would have a new configuration and name.

Brief remarks by Elyn Zimmerman about Marabar and Sudama In an interview with TCLF, Zimmerman said: “The size and shape of [Marabar’s] pool was changed to work with the new site. The landscape rocks were positioned around the existing plantings and trees. The polished and rough large rocks – the core of Marabar – were positioned slightly differently around the new pool. Although reminiscent of Marabar, the new setting, and a thorough cleaning and repolishing of worn spots after 40 years made the piece look new and unique so it needed a new title.”

The artist added: “The title Marabar was by inspired the description in E.M. Forster’s book A Passage to India of one of the many caves in India that were carved 3000 years ago out of natural solid rock. Forster had visited the Barabar Caves in northeast India and changed the location’s name to Marabar for the novel. His book describes one cave in particular – Sudama. It’s entered through a rectangular passageway that leads to a high, long, barrel-vaulted space with ‘mirror’ polished walls and arched ceiling. The polish is to support the extraordinary acoustics experienced in the space that was used for centuries by religious devotees for meditation and chanting.”

About Elyn Zimmerman
Elyn Zimmerman’s work is featured in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of America Art, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, for example, and it has been recognized by awards from the Art Commission of the City of New York, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Maryland chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects. Among her many large-scale public projects are commissions from the Institute for Advanced Studies, in Princeton, New Jersey; the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden at the New Orleans Museum of Art; the U.S. State Department for the embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; and the Vancouver Art Commission for a prominent project in the city center.

Zimmerman served as a member of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts from 2003 to 2008, and in 2016 she, along with Tadao Ando, received the Isamu Noguchi Award, given annually to practitioners who “share Noguchi’s spirit of innovation, global consciousness, and East-West exchange.”

About Landslide
The goal of Landslide, one of TCLF’s four core programs, is to draw immediate and lasting attention to threatened landscapes and landscape features. Through web-based news stories, traveling exhibitions, and print publications, Landslide reveals the value of these often-forgotten places. The program has been instrumental in preventing the demolition of more than 60 sites nationwide during the past 25 years, including the Russell Page-designed viewing garden at the Frick Collection  in New York City.

About The Cultural Landscape Foundation
The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), is a 501(c)(3) non-profit founded in 1998 to connect people to places. TClLF educates and engages the public to make our shared landscape heritage more visible, identify its value, and empower its stewards. Through its website, publishing, lectures, and other events, TCLF broadens support and understanding for cultural landscapes.  TCLF is also home to the Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize.

[Source: TCLF press release]