An “Urgency of Connection”: Mark Bradford on New Stuart Collection Piece

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (Prague591). Link to photo license.

Mark Bradford is an instantly recognizable presence in any room. At six-foot-ten, he literally stands out from the crowd, but it is his warm, welcoming personality that draws attention.

On Saturday, December 1, the Stuart Collection hosted a presentation given by Bradford at Galbraith Hall. He spoke about his new sculpture and the recently installed 20th addition to the collection, titled “WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT.”

Bradford, a 57-year-old Black, gay artist, is known for his large-scale works that use discarded urban materials to reflect social conditions. Awarded the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 2009 and chosen to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2017, he has established himself as one of the most compelling visual artists of all time.

Galbraith Hall was divided into two sections: the front half reserved for donors and friends of the Stuart Collection, and the back half open to the public. Before the lecture, Bradford walked into the room and immediately walked to the back, where he made a point of personally introducing himself to everyone. He told me that he went to the non-reserved seats first “because that’s where [he] would be sitting.”

After brief introductions by Stuart Collection Director Mary Beebe and Chancellor Pradeep Khosla (who exclaimed, “You can see this from my house!”), Bradford made his way to the podium.

He explained that the sculpture’s titular message, “WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT,” was the first message ever transmitted via Morse code. That first message marked a new method of communication, and forces us to think about the implications of modern communication on how we interact and build communities.

The idea behind this sculpture stems from Bradford’s work at the San Diego-Tijuana border, where he got held for secondary inspection and met baggage handlers who would informally take baggages from San Diego to Tijuana. From there, Bradford used the context of the border environment to think about ”taking something invisible and making it visible” when building a public structure on campus.

The structure is placed outside of Urey Hall, near a plaque that marks the founding of the university and is the oldest non-military space on campus. Its location demonstrates Bradford’s talent for finding things that already have a designated meaning and repurposing it, or as he calls it, “piggybacking on the history of another history.”

Bradford applied this knack for repurposing materials again by using the industrial poles that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) uses for their tower structures, which look eerily similar to the construction cranes present around campus. He humorously explained, “Originally, I wanted to go twice as high, but [the FAA] was like, well a plane would hit you.”

Additionally, Bradford refabricated the light at the top of the sculpture—which flashes the titular Morse code message—so that the white light could project a “feeling of urgency, almost like an SOS.” His intention was to question what it means to have a public structure on a campus that is within miles of the busiest and most militarized border crossings in the world. He told the audience, “In my mind’s eye, I was thinking it would be great if I could see it across the border and it could have an urgency of connection.”

The piece has been said to signify the advances in communication we have made, and UC San Diego’s role in this process. In a way this is true, as Bradford highlights the piece being put on a “campus of thoughts,” where we can think about “what can we do with ideas and how [they] transmit and translate and distort [themselves].” But to say that this piece celebrates UCSD’s advancements is presumptuous, as its real significance transcends beyond this campus.

Bradford acknowledges that when he was first thinking about the piece in 2013, it might have been simply an ode to communication advancements during the context of that year. But in 2018, the piece goes far beyond Morse code. It is more a “cry of rage” to the shifts and undercurrents happening in society, specifically in relation to the border and its subsequent power structures.  

Interestingly enough, an audience member commented that the sculpture’s “in-your-face aspect” made them uncomfortable, to which Bradford responded, “I kind of like the in-your-face aspect.” In fact, he is glad that people are talking about it, seeing it from their houses like Khosla, and hopefully thinking about what it means.

With this sculpture, Bradford interrogates the artificiality of the U.S.-Mexico border, and its changing meaning when someone crosses. The border serves dualistically for some as a means of accessing capital and transferring information, but for others, it maintains and creates power structures by excluding them from access to that capital.

Bradford critiques what it means when the movement of capital is prioritized over the movement of people over a border that creates more social constructs than it serves as a physical boundary.

“WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT” stands as the tallest structure on campus and its conspicuous nature is something people cannot ignore. It purposefully encourages, or rather forces, self-reflection and thought among its viewers. “I don’t try to convince anyone of anything. I just put it there and let the people decide,” said Bradford.

Sabira Parajuli is the Arts and Culture Editor of The Triton.

Update: This article has been updated with a number of small corrections on Thursday, December 13 at 5:40 p.m. The article previously referred to the Stuart Collection as the “Stuart Art Collection,” and mistakenly had Bradford’s height and age as six-foot-seven and 55 instead of six-foot-ten and 57, respectively.