Can You Swing On Shang? An Elegy to an UMMA Icon That Will Be Forever Missed

Can You Swing On Shang?

An Elegy to an UMMA Icon That Will Be Forever Missed

Short answer: yes. You are indeed allowed to swing on Shang, the large brown sculpture that was on view in front of UMMA from 2008-2020. The Mark di Suvero work was on long-term loan to UMMA, but was recently purchased by a private collector and was de-installed in mid-October. 

After more than a decade in front of UMMA, Shang has cemented itself as an icon for the Ann Arbor community. Even if you’ve swung on Shang before and enjoyed it, you probably didn’t have an experience quite as transcendental as one anonymous Ann Arborite who wrote a letter to UMMA about it several years ago. One day UMMA employees found a large, laminated letter stuck to Shang with magnets, and it has been hanging up in our offices ever since. As we bid farewell to an UMMA icon, we thought we would share this meditative, amusing story of one mischievous art-lover’s encounter with the piece.

Have any great photos of you on the swing? Share them on social media with the hashtag #GoodbyeShang.

An Anonymous Letter

As I was talking along the other side of the street, I looked across and saw this sculpture which I had never seen before. People were sitting on the forward part of it and rocking back and forth eating snow cones while their friends took pictures. I resolved to return when the cameras were gone so I could see for myself.

I expected the plaque in the front left corner to say “YOU MAY SWING” or “PLEASE SWING” or “RESIST YOUR URGE TO SWING” but it said nothing of the kind, it only identified the sculpture as Shang. I inspected the surfaces of Shang looking for an invitation which might have been hidden so as to make it seem like more of a prize. However I found nothing. Ants were congregating on the platform. At this time I noticed that Shang was covered in rust which struck me as odd for so new a sculpture.

I have always been conflicted  in my response to modern art because the creator of it always seems to be getting away with something. I am pleased to see mischief succeeding but it seems unjust that some people get away with so much more than others. Evening was moving in and I could hear the new building cracking all over as a breeze came through and cooled its foundations. Traffic seemed to have vacated State Street completely. I decided it was time to act.

I mounted Shang and found the seat heavier than I expected, then I laughed at myself wondering what I had thought a ten foot steel beam would weigh. Each push seemed to have no noticeable effect but it was not long before Shang was rocking in speed, and I could not tell if the complaints of the metal were part of the art. I have never been able to sustain a sense of outrage because I am always conscious of the possibility that someone expects it of me. Peace marches are especially hard for me. How can you believe in your own importance when your dialogue is written for you?

While my thoughts continued in this groove there were still no cars on State Street. The wind was strong now, whistling over the buildings and around the trees and between the benches and up from the ground. Shang seemed to be gaining momentum. In retrospect I know that my legs were still pumping but at the time the wind seemed to be responsible. I thought Shang’s straining cords were protesting louder and louder until a passing bird made me listen and I discovered that the opposite was true. Do you know that feeling you get when you’re on a train and you think you’re speeding up but you look out the window and it’s just the train on the other track slowing down? Shang seemed to have transcended its factory specifications and was using its surplus energy not to speed up, not to louden its misery but to bring the world around it to a halt. The wind had stopped and my songbird hung suspended in midsong testifying to this steel saddle that had interposed itself in the gears of time. Dialogue had ceased.

Then I was on my ass looking up at Shang. Every one of the cords has snapped save one,* and the “seat” dangled like a sword of Damocles above the ants still swarming as if the last of the snow cones hadn’t been finished off an hour ago.

A car passed by and although the driver did not seem to notice me, I feared that I would be caught and criticized for my actions so I threw a convenient tarp over Shang and tiptoed away. When I had nearly made my escape a groundskeeper spotted me and admonished me for walking in a landscaped area, but I smiled innocently at him and so avoided further reproach. I intended to come back under cover of darkness when I acquired the proper tool(s) to repair Shang, but someone else apparently did it first.*

I am still not sure if it is okay to swing on Shang or if the sculptor even intended to do so. I apologize if a “DO NOT SWING” plaque appears in the future but now that you have read my story, I hope that you feel that you have gotten away with something, too.

*UMMA’s Registrar, Roberta Gilboe, assures us that this part of the piece is poetic license–Shang’s cords have never snapped, and it has never needed repairs like the anonymous writer describes.


Goodbye Shang. You were well-loved, and you will be missed.