Rice University: Rice’s latest piece of public art, ‘Seif,’ lights up campus

Over 10 feet tall and glowing like a beacon day and night, the newest piece in the Rice Public Art collection is an eye-catching sculpture by Iranian-born artist Shirazeh Houshiary that makes a striking and elegant companion to the recently built Sid Richardson College tower.

“Seif,” a twisting helix of Murano glass bricks, was installed last week on the lawn Sid Rich shares with Will Rice College and the glass-fronted Seibel Servery. It’s one of four original works by leading women artists added to the campus collection in the past year, supporting Rice’s ambitious commitment to expand and diversify its public art collection.

“We are honored to add this important commission by Shirazeh Houshiary to the Rice public art collection, and look forward to the ways it will engage students, faculty, staff, alumni and visitors to campus,” said Alison Weaver, the Suzanne Deal Booth executive director of Rice’s Moody Center for the Arts. “We’re especially excited to see how ‘Sidizens’ will experience the work over time as part of their daily life on campus.”

During a visit to Rice last February, Houshiary was inspired by the way the Texas sunlight filtered through the canopy of live oak trees on campus. In response, “Seif” was constructed using colored glass bricks custom-made in Italy that seem to change with the sky above, on a site chosen by Houshiary herself.

Mindful of how the campus would continue to grow around her sculpture, the artist was even closely involved in choosing the trees that would be planted next to “Seif,” said Frauke Josenhans, curator the Moody.

“The sculpture truly is in dialogue with the trees around it and merges into the surrounding landscape,” Josenhans said. “‘Seif’ is activated by the moving sunlight and looks different depending on the time of the day, or at night when it seems to glow, due to lights that the artist selected.”

A seif is the long, narrow ridge of sand at the crest of a dune that’s formed by the shifting dynamics of wind. These same directional forces are embodied within the sculpture, Houshiary said, where centripetal and centrifugal movements rise and fall.

“The opaqueness of the work fosters separation and shadow, while its transparency offers connectedness through visibility and light,” Houshiary said. “The desire for simultaneous visibility and invisibility, materiality and immateriality, presence and absence are characteristics of the human psyche and can nurture dream-like images, like those that dwell in glass.”

Born in Shiraz, Iran, Houshiary moved to London in 1974 and rose to prominence in the 1980s as part of the New British Sculpture movement. Today, she also works across such diverse media as painting, video art and installations.

This isn’t the first time Houshiary’s work has come to campus. Her painting “Flare Up” greeted visitors to the Moody this past spring as part of its exhibition “Artists and the Rothko Chapel: 50 Years of Inspiration,” while her video installation “Breath” invited guests to step inside a cloistered room filled with voices chanting prayers.

Houshiary draws on various sources ranging from poetry, Islamic art and Renaissance painting to neuroscience and mathematics. Her recent sculptures — which feature repetitive, rhythmic configurations of bricks — conjure transparency and opacity while conveying continuous movement inspired by nature.

“I definitely love seeing all of the public art on campus,” said Sid Richardson senior Laura Semro, who’s majoring in visual and dramatic arts.

“I think it’s super important, especially because Rice is considered such a STEM-based school,” Semro said. “I like how much effort people put into making the campus look pretty and letting people know that there’s a more diverse student body and that there are other priorities here.”