While traveling in Dublin last week I walked onto the campus of Trinity College and was taken aback when I saw a very familiar sculpture sitting on raised platform in the school’s main courtyard. It was one of the well-known Sphere within a Sphere, or Sfera con Sfera, sculptures by Italian artist Arnaldo Pomodoro, considered one of the greatest contemporary Italian sculptors.
Sfera con Sfera in the Vatican MuseumsI had an instant flash back to the Cortile della Pigna at the Vatican where another version of this same sculpture is also on display. Though I knew other versions existed, for example, in front of the UN headquarters in New York, I had not heard of the one in Dublin. Having retuned home and done a bit more digging I’ve learned that there are in fact something like twelve other Sfera con Sfera sculptures scattered across the globe. Remarkably, almost half are in the United States. Including Dublin, the UN, and the Vatican, other versions can be found in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C, Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Ohio, de Young Museum, San Francisco, Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Hakone Open-Air Museum, Hakone, University of California, Berkeley, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv, and Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, Tehran.
While the two examples I have seen personally, in the Vatican and Trinity College, appear to be very similar in design (though Trinity’s is significantly smaller), many of the spheres appear quite different. However, all of them share some common features. They are all made of bronze and they have all been treated and polished in such a way as to give the bronze a gold appearance. In each, this smooth surface gives way to a view of the interior of the sphere; a world of a very different quality than its shining exterior. Suddenly we are peering into a complicated mesh of cogs or what some describe as the inner workings of a clock, piano keys, or the intricate components of an alien machine (our Trinity guide described it as looking akin to the Death Star from Star Wars or a Zombie Pac-Man, which, one must admit, it does). It will not surprise most that before becoming a sculptor, Pomodoro studied geometry. In fact, in many of his works we are confronted with seemingly simple shapes that then yield to much more complicated worlds within.
But what does it mean? The most common explanation (one apparently given by the artist himself) is that the inner ball represents the Earth and outer ball represents Christianity. This description is most fitting in relation to the particular piece in the Vatican, but it seems an odd significance to associate with the United Nations or the various other museums in which we find Pomodoro’s works. I found surprisingly few divergent explanations. The most “alternative” reading came from an online article by Smac Gallery of Art, “…one aspect of these works should be glaringly apparent, namely; Pomodoro’s undisguised and scathing criticism of greed, capitalism, industrialization, mechanization, exploitation of the planet and other related issues.” In their article, Smac relates these concerns to a trip the artist took to the United States, in which case the numerous examples found there may make more sense.
While this reading would better fit more of the sculptures’ various contexts, it does seem an odd ideology for say, the Vatican, to embrace. Nevertheless, much of the meaning making has been left to the viewer, which, in the case of Pomodoro’s many spheres, has produced an unusual and unexpected offshoot of conspiracy theory. Apparently, due to the quantity and quality of locations and (according to me) the lack of any real explanation readily available, the appearance of these spheres is described on certain websites as a “phenomenon,” a secret-nighttime-sculpture-placement-program representing the “New World Order.” One author even suggests plotting them on a map to see what clues the specific locations give us. I think I’ll pass, thanks.
Unlike most of the interpretations I have read – conspiracy or art critique – when I see these spheres my thoughts are not of destruction. In fact, I think Pomodoro is playing with time and space in a very clever way. How do we know the spheres are disintegrating, breaking, or falling apart and not healing, repairing, and reforming? I see the opposite of shredding metal, machinery, worlds, and ethos; I see once fragmented worlds that are now beginning the process of reuniting.
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