Five massive boulders are arranged in semicircular formation, abutting a reflecting pool on the American University campus in Washington D.C. This isn’t the first installation of the oversized granite rocks, which have a combined weight of 450,000 pounds. The five pieces comprise a work by artist Elyn Zimmerman originally titled Marabar that was commissioned in 1984 as a landscape element for the National Geographic Society (NGS) campus in Washington, D.C.
Marabar was prominently installed in the public plaza at the NGS campus designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) and landscape architect James Urban. Several decades later, a campus overhaul at the NGS called for the removal of the art piece. In 2017 the organization wrote to Zimmerman about its planned campus redesign, detailing in its correspondence the need for the installation to be located elsewhere. The letter gave the artist a deadline and asked her to decide what to do with the sculpture.
“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,” the letter stated.
The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) stepped in to help Zimmerman. TCLF is a non-profit organization that educates and engages the public to make our shared landscape heritage more visible, identify its value, and empower its stewards. It launched a campaign for Marabar that designated the piece as one of its at-risk Landslide sites, and it gathered letters from landscape architects, architects, journalists committed to seeing the work installed somewhere else. David Childs of SOM, who had worked on the original NGS campus, was among the supporters. In an effort to save the work, in 2021 NGS agreed to relocate the sculpture and covered the cost of its removal.
NGS suggested moving the sculptures to Washington Canal Park, but the idea was nixed by Zimmerman and Dave Rubin, landscape architect of Washington Canal Park. The artist explored several spots, ultimately settling on a location on the campus of American University. On the new site the positioning of the rocks was altered from its original iteration; here, the boulders are arranged in response to existing plants and trees. Zimmerman felt that with a new location, arrangement, and refurbishment the sculpture deserved a new title. She rechristened the piece Sudama.
“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 said in an interview with TCLF.
In both locations the rocks are placed around a water element. Some faces of the rocks are left in their unaltered, rugged state while others are cut and polished. These mirrored surfaces reflect their surroundings, including other rocks, nearby buildings, and the landscape.
Both titles are references to the E. M. Forster book A Passage to India. In the novel, the author recalls a visit to the Barabar Caves in northeast India. In Forster’s dramatization, the name of the caves was changed to Marabar. Sudama is the name of another cave referenced in the text.
“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,” TCLF’s president and CEO Charles A. Birnbaum said in a statement. “Had TCLF not intervened beginning in March 2020, when the artist was resigned to the loss of one of her most important works, this acclaimed installation would likely have been demolished.”