A massive sculpture installation by Elyn Zimmerman that was threatened with destruction amid a renovation of its original home has been moved to a new location and given a new name. The 1984 work Marabar, comprising a sixty-foot-long reflecting pool surrounded by twelve red-granite boulders and originally housed on the grounds of the National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, DC, was unveiled April 4 on the campus of American University, four miles away. The work, which has been reconfigured according to its new surroundings, has been named Sudama and awarded a new date, 2023, to reflect its remaking.
“The title Marabar was inspired by the description in EM Forster’s book A Passage to India of one of the many caves in India that were carved three thousand years ago out of natural solid rock,” said Zimmerman in an interview with the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), which led the campaign to preserve the work. “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.”
The National Geographic Society in 2017 alerted Zimmerman that they were planning to dismantle the installation, her first public commission, as part of the renovation of their campus. Commissioned in 1982, Marabar was and a rare example both of Land art in the eastern United States and of an earthwork by a woman, as the genre was largely dominated by white males. According to the artist, she was asked during a cavalier phone call to “come pick up her stones.” Zimmerman did not hear from the organization again until early 2020, by which time news of its forthcoming removal had spread, prompting a number of cultural figures to call for National Geographic to protect the work. Among those who went to bat for the work were Charles A. Birnbaum, president and CEO of the Washington, DC–based TCLF; Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; Marc Treib, a landscape and architectural historian and professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley; and Penny Balkin Bach, the executive director and chief curator of the Association for Public Art in Philadelphia.
In May 2020, National Geographic put its renovation plans on hold at the behest of the Historic Preservation Review Board of the District of Columbia, which had originally green-lighted the plan, while it attempted to come up with a solution. Nearly a year later, TCLF announced that Zimmerman and Nat Geo had reached an agreement that would see the organization pay to resituate the installation at a mutually agreeable location.