Whether located in parks or subway stations, in front of courthouses or libraries, on streets or plazas, Tom Otterness' public sculptures have a common aesthetic. Contrasting extremes of scale, substituting animals for people, and referencing myths and fairy tales, he imbues his works with an endearing playfulness that engages viewers' attention.
Wichita State University’s Millipede originated as a smaller sculpture in an installation Otterness created in 2004 for Puerto Rico's Camuy River Cave Park. Since then, he has produced multiple millipedes, each version possessing different attributes. The one at the Phoenix Convention Center in Arizona, for instance, is part of an installation, titled Social Invertebrates (2008), which also includes a bronze walking stick, a scorpion, tiny rounded humanlike figures, and a scattering of coins. The Wichita Millipede stands on a concrete apron across from the Ulrich Museum’s front entrance, bracketed by a key-shaped flower bed whose springtime tulips are a well-loved campus amenity. Although it is not installed among other Otterness creatures, it keeps deliberate company with its surroundings. As the artist explained in his proposal, the work is meant to connect metaphorically to the university as a whole and specifically to the other sculptures near it.
A millipede’s body is composed of linked segments working together and heading in one direction. . . . The content relates to the playful surreal birds and insects within [Joan Miró’s mural] Personnages Oiseaux. The Millipede within the tulip beds presents a symbiotic relationship – millipedes eat tulips in fact. The sectioned construction of the Millipede also relates to Andy Goldsworthy’s Wichita Arch.(1)
Otterness' knack for provocatively matching content to context is evident, for example, in the Millipede's marching feet, which call to mind the notion of collective work. Note that half of them sport women’s heels while the other half wear men’s loafers, a configuration that would require coordination and cooperation in order to complete a task. A much-bigger-than-life insect boasting shoes pairs nicely with the morphed human (personnages) and bird (oiseaux) figures in the Miró mural that the sculpture faces. Furthermore, as Otterness' proposal suggests, the Millipede relates organically to both the flower bed surrounding it and to Goldsworthy’s Wichita Arch, in which a growing tree marks the passage of time.
Here, as with all Otterness sculptures, interpretive possibilities abound. Children can incorporate Millipede into a world of make-believe. Someone who has read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland might link this bronze creature with the quizzical, hookah-smoking caterpillar in Lewis Carroll’s book. A geologist looking at it would know that millipede fossils are among the oldest ever found. This potential to spark thoughts and conversations is what makes the Millipede an apt addition to a university campus, where meaningful exchanges of ideas foster discovery and learning.