November 2008: ‘Het Ding’ is upside down

| Rense Kuipers

In ‘Back to the Year...’ we revive bygone campus times with remarkable stories. In this third episode we go back to the year 2008, when the attentive student Arjan van Rossum noticed that after maintenance work, the artwork ‘Het Ding’ at the main entrance had been reassembled the wrong way around.

'Het Ding' in 2021

‘Eye for detail’. It is written boldly on the LinkedIn profile of Arjan van Rossum, currently a software developer at the company Hellebrekers. He thinks it’s quite funny, considering the reason for the interview. Thirteen years ago, he was the one who discovered that something was wrong with ‘Het Ding’. He still has that attentiveness, he says. ‘If something is off, I notice it immediately.’

Taking pictures

Van Rossum, who was a Industrial Engineering & Management student at the time, can still clearly remember how he discovered that suddenly ‘Het Ding’ was upside down. ‘That summer, the artwork had been removed for maintenance. The wood of the telephone poles used had rotten, I think. Then, on 18 September, ‘Het Ding’ was reassembled.’

Campus life went on as usual, but every time Van Rossum cycled past the work of art to and from lectures, he had the feeling something wasn’t right. ‘On 30 October, I went by it with a camera and back home at Matenweg 75, I immediately compared the pictures with old archive photos. It turned out that ‘Het Ding’ was upside down – mirrored, rather.’

'Het Ding' in 1974, compared to 2021.

Not an easy job

That same evening, he shared his finding with his fellow students via a forum. And he sent an e-mail to the Facility Department (the Campus & Facility Management of the time), informing them that ‘Het Ding’ had been reassembled wrongly – and kindly requesting them to restore the work of art to glory.

The Facility Department did not respond. Van Rossum was asked on the forum whether he had already contacted UT News (now U-Today). So he did. And of course, the rapid campus reporters were on top of it. The Facility Department acknowledged the mistake. ‘As far as I know, it is in a slightly different state than it was before’, employee Joop Siebum admitted.

Van Rossum understands the mistake. ‘It is not an easy job to put it all back together. If you start in a certain way, you have to keep on building.’ Back then, it wasn’t a big deal to him. ‘To me, art was a nice addition to a beautiful campus environment. Concerning ‘Het Ding’, I especially love its backstory. How they came up with that...’

From student joke to artwork

Because what we now consider to be a work of art, once started out as a student prank. The idea’s origin lies with former students Jaap Hos and Jasper Latté. Together with three fellow students and supported by employees and companies, they created the structure out of six discarded telephone poles and steel wire. On Good Friday, 12 April 1974, they drove onto the campus at 4 o’clock in the morning to assemble the structure. ‘It had to be done very precisely,’ Hos told UT News in 2013. ‘When we pulled it all together one of the pulleys snapped, which made it quite tense, but ultimately the giant was erected at around eight o’clock in the morning.’

For years, it remained a mystery how – and by whom – ‘Het Ding’ appeared on the campus. According to Hos, that was very much intended: ‘The students and staff were so enthusiastic. How is this possible, they wondered. The poles seem to float. Many people interpreted ‘Het Ding’ in 1974 to be criticism towards the expensive works of art that were placed at the UT at the time, but that was never the intention.’

Restored to glory?

Back to 2008. The Facility Department acknowledged the mistake but it had no intention of reassembling the work of art again, this time correctly. ‘If we were to change it, it would cost us another day. That takes a lot of time and money, and the question is whether that is worth it,’ the Facility Department responded at the time. Together with the culture department of the UT it was decided to leave ‘Het Ding’ the way it was. Van Rossum decided to accept this. ‘Nowadays when I drive past the campus and see ‘Het Ding’, I still think about it sometimes. It was a just minor occurrence and mostly fun to read about in the newspaper.’

And anyone who arrives on campus today and casts a glance at ‘Het Ding’ will still see that the structure looks different than it did between 1974 and the summer of 2008. Since then, the campus has - unintentionally - its own Banksy avant la lettre. Whether the artwork will ever be as it was after the 1974 prank? Perhaps after the next maintenance job.