Let us learn to embrace the hideous football obelisk.
All things must pass, and so it will go later this year for Donald Lipski’s celebratory sports sculpture, “Nails’ Tales.” Don’t know what I’m talking about? Sure you do. It’s the 50-foot tall concrete obelisk at the five-way intersection of Regent and Monroe. “What in the hell is that?” you likely thought to yourself the first time you saw it. That imposing grayish-white prong, whose sides give way to reveal footballs piled high, is a piece of public art with the actual title “Nails’ Tales” (Lipski named it in honor of his UW-Madison college roommate), and in an act of profound cowardice on the part of University of Wisconsin officials, it was announced in June that the sculpture will be shuttled into storage later this summer.
Installed back in 2005 as a knobbly bowsprit for the football mecca of Camp Randall Stadium, “Nails’ Tales” has been a lightning rod for controversy since day one. I will concede that the concerns of the community at large are not entirely illegitimate. I mean, what is an obelisk other than an ancient and unsubtle example of phallic symbolism? And here’s one that is planted, quite firmly, right in front of the entrance to the holiest of holy shrines for all who worship at the altar of UW Athletics. It was bound to raise some eyebrows and stoke some ire and its removal has resulted in a collective sigh of relief from squeaky-wheeled critics apparently in need of a little lubrication.
The trouble all began, interestingly enough, because UW athletic director Barry Alvarez got exactly what he wanted. Lipski, talking with The Badger Herald‘s Erik Sateren in 2014, said that the impression left on him by Alvarez and associate vice chancellor for facilities Alan Fish was that they wanted “something that projected strength, power, virility—things that are not surprising to be associated with football.” The artist added that “they were all but making phallic gestures with their hands. They were, without saying it, saying that they wanted something phallic.” Lipski also told the Wisconsin State Journal‘s Chris Rickert in 2011 that Alvarez and Fish wanted “something with ‘power’ and ‘dynamism,’… ‘if not something phallic, but something that was very male and dominant.'”
“Dominant” … “phallic” … “male” … “power” … If anything, “Nails’ Tales” over-delivered on these promised terms, however subtly or unsubtly Alvarez might have conveyed them. Scores of angry sports fans have registered their unhappiness over the years, despite all the evidence that the marriage of priapism with the dazzling color palette of navy beans is, all but to the letter, what papa Alvarez ordered up.
An unnamed representative of the Vilas neighborhood, according to Doug Moe, said “the neighborhood has moved into acceptance” of the artwork. Is it that far of a leap to think that renovations to Camp Randall and its surrounds are a smoke-screen for UW bigwigs to finally sweep their column-shaped cock-up under the carpet and appease a few easily irked alumni?
What they should do, though, is embrace the disdain, and simply install a much bigger “Nails’ Tales,” to hulk over the gateway to Camp Randall with even more vertiginous prominence and notably disturbing texture. The sculpture is as excessive and brutal and overcharged with self-important male energy as the sport of football itself. To magnify its footprint would only make “Nails’ Tales” a more accurate reflection of the sport’s role in our local and national landscape.
It would also have a bit of a balancing effect. Thick-built fellows in painted-on pants mashing up against each other in tightly choreographed formations all scrambling for control of an oblong lump of animal hide with brain-bruisingly brutal force? “Nails’ Tales” is the absolute antidote to taking all that stuff too seriously. And the sign they’re replacing it with, as genuinely nice as it is, doesn’t quite capture the dominant phallic male power Alvarez and Fish were originally after.
The powers that be might think that they’ve been throwing good money after bad in the nearly 15 years since “Nails’ Tales” went up, and that they’re finally able to scuttle the ship that is their garish SS Sunk Cost. Something with as gaudy a reputation as “Nails’ Tales” can never truly be buried, and the attempt will backfire. Scooting it off to a warehouse somewhere, Ark of the Covenant-style, does nothing other than engorge its already dubious legacy.
For what it’s worth, I sincerely don’t think Lipski was trying to be subversive with “Nails’ Tales,” much less cause so much outright irritation. And Madison is not the only town, nor Badger fans the only sports community, to grapple with the dubious gift of an original Lipski. The sculptor has gone on to plant at least one other penis-like protruberance outside a sports venue. May I introduce you, gentle reader, to “The Ziz” (deemed one of the “Best Public Art Projects in the U.S.” by Americans for the Arts), which can be found outside the Arizona spring training home to the Cleveland Indians, a team whose other controversies will forever upstage anything Lipski could lob their way.
But our relationship with Lipski, despite all the discomfort “Nails’ Tales” may cause, is special. As stated earlier, I think the university should reverse its decision to effectively mothball this potent power-pillar of pigskin, uprooting it only to replace it with a bigger, taller, and outright stronger shaft that will cast even longer shadows and cause our gridiron enemies to quake in their cleats at the sight of its girth. Is there a legal reason I’m unaware of why Lipski stopped at 50 feet in the first place? Let’s go all-in and outdo absolutely everyone with a tower of taupe that will topple for no one.
UPDATE (August 21, 2019): The sculpture was removed this morning, Channel 3000 reports. Lipski also reached out to Tone Madison after this piece was published, writing the following:
I chuckled at your piece. You should know—and share with your readers—that UW-Madison is committed to working with me to find a new site for Nails’ Tales. Think of it as half-time. I am hoping that by the end of the game, a solution will be found that even the dick-obsessed will appreciate.
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