On a fall day in 1992, sculptor Roy Tamboli stepped back on the crunching grass, careful not to lose his footing and fall into oncoming traffic. He stopped halfway down the steep hill, pivoted, and nodded approval to the crane operator. By dusk, the artist and a crew of metal fabricators had erected the final steel beam of Tamboli’s massive outdoor sculpture. Measuring 50 feet in diameter and weighing 5,000 pounds, Pangaean Disc settled into the grassy knoll at the busiest intersection in Memphis, Tennessee. Tamboli placed his large-scale metal installation in the heart of the city where the six-lane vein of Poplar Avenue crosses the four-lane artery of Walnut Grove Road. Pangaean Disc stands large and still before the 16,000 cars passing by every day; Few of the drivers even notice it at all.
Nineteen years later, the sharp, anchoring support beam still juts out from the ground. Tamboli now works in his Midtown studio, crafting a 12-foot bronze monument for a young man recently buried in Elmwood Cemetery. He steps down off a ladder, dusts the dried plaster from his work jeans, and wipes a forearm across his salt and pepper stubble. Whistling a tune as he cleans his tools, he locks the front door behind himself and climbs into his green pickup.
Heading eastbound on Poplar, Tamboli drives across the bridge leading over Walnut Grove. “I was coming along this overpass, and I saw these cell phone towers going up on either side of the bridge. I really liked the symmetry.” He never lets go of the steering wheel. His hands are short, chubby, and undefined. “I thought to myself, ‘I want to put a large-scale piece in that green space over there.’” He slows down and makes a few turns, reaching the private property where Pangaen Disc towers over the traffic.
Standing three stories tall, fashioned in tempered steel, the continents of the world are spread across a three-spoke axel. Huge, flat metal panels in the shapes of North and South America are welded on the left spoke; Europe, Africa, and Asia on the right; and Australia at the bottom. Oceans are represented by negative space. The spokes form a Y, and at the hub, a grounded steel support beam—thick, round and spearheaded—pierces the through the center.
Tamboli parks his truck. He walks across the grass and stands before his work. A few inches shy of 6 feet tall, he is dwarfed by the slanted shadow of a world map leaning on the ground behind him.
“It’s a moment in time when we are frozen in separation.” Tamboli points at his sculpture and pauses.
In 1920, a German meteorologist developed the theory of continental drift: More than 200 million years ago during the Paleozoic era, all land existed together as one supercontinent. He pointed out how the borders of the continents fit together like puzzle pieces and based proof of Pangaea’s existence on his research the discovery of similar fossils and rock strata along the shorelines of Africa and South America. While his findings supported the theory, his explanation for the movement of such vast areas of land was wrong. He thought the continents spread apart due to the gravitational pull of the tides. He looked for the source outside the Earth’s surface when he should have looked within.
Forty years later, seismologists discovered the existence of tectonic plates—close-fitting slabs of crust that had shifted on the hot, top layer of the Earth’s mantle. Along the boundaries of the plates, over millions of years, friction has worn at the jagged edges. Crust flakes into the magma. The plates shrink, giving them more room to move around. A series of rifts in the plates has gradually moved the seven continents into the places they now appear on the globe and in the sculpture.
Tamboli created Pangaean Disc to preserve a moment in time, depicting the world in process. For over a decade, this piece of public art has stood a firm, silent watch every morning as cars speed west from the suburbs toward the downtown skyscrapers and back again in the early evening. The sun sets. Streetlights click on. Headlights zoom past in streaks. The sun rises. Streetlights click off. The sculpture weathers the sticky summer heat, flash-floods, and the one good snow Memphis gets every winter. The surrounding grass fades from lush green sprinkled with wildflowers to drab winter beige and back again in the late spring. The steel of Pangaean Disc has turned brown and gritty like cinnamon.
Tamboli rubs his fingers along a welded seam. “I put something in here, something you can’t see from the road.” He gives a nod toward the bottom of the sculpture. “I needed this panel to sturdy it at the base, here underneath Australia. But I still wanted it to do some work for the piece, not just be structural.” He picks up a sturdy, fallen limb from the ground, cracks the twigs off the side, and leans on it like a walking stick. Stepping back in his worn, leather boots, Tamboli raises the stick and points: “I built this steel cylinder here at the bottom. People driving by can’t see what’s inside.”
Within the cylinder, Tamboli mounted three babies on metal springs. “I found these baby dolls at Goodwill and filled them with plaster,” he says. “When they formed up enough, I threaded a 12-inch rod through the backbone, so when they set, I’d have some way to attach them.” As he cut away the rubber doll molding, Tamboli found the plaster babies to look inhuman, deformed. He wanted them to look as real as possible, so he coated the forms in wax pigments of different skin tones–tan, cream, and dark brown. He mounted each baby onto a thick, coiled spring bolted inside the cylinder. “I wanted them to be flexible, a moveable part of the work.” Looking from above, the tight springs form a y-shape, with the babies suspended in the middle. The fragile future of Modern Man hangs, protected from the elements.
Tamboli enclosed the cylinder with a 2-inch glass panel on the top, a skylight. “I didn’t want to shut them up in the dark. This way, they could get some light, something positive.” Instead, over time the sun has heated the cylinder like an incubator. Day after day the wax softens and drips from the plaster babies like melted skin, stringing and swirling together in the dark, goopy bottom. “I didn’t mean for that to happen, but I think it just adds to the piece.” Tamboli looks at the sun, but not for too long. He looks back down at the cylinder. “I wanted to show vulnerable creatures born into a world so often cruel, cold, and indifferent. Children can’t help what they’re born into.”
According to Greek mythology, all the evils of the world originated from the first woman on Earth. Pandora is responsible for releasing greed, envy, and suffering onto humankind. She caused all the eternal conflicts that have multiplied through generations. The myth says that Prometheus, a noble being and creator of man, crept up to heaven and lit a torch with the sacred fire of the sun chariot. He snuck back down to the earth, triumphant. Fire gave man dominion over beasts, which until then had been reserved for deities. Zeus swore vengeance against Prometheus and ordered the god of craftsmanship to create a woman, Pandora, which means “all gifted.”
One by one, each god bestowed upon this great woman a talent: Aphrodite gave her beauty, Apollo music, Hermes gave persuasion, and Zeus gave curiosity. With his winged helmet, the messenger god escorted Pandora to Earth and offered her as a bride to Prometheus’s foolish brother. Though he had repeatedly been warned never to accept any divine gifts, Epimetheus immediately took the maiden into his house and married her.
According to mythology, Pandora found in the house of Epimetheus a pithos, a large urn with a lid, filled with the leftovers from the creation of mankind. Her husband had hidden it away and told her never to open it. When left alone one day, she could no longer resist her curiosity. Pandora sought out and opened the forbidden jar, just a peek’s worth. Out rushed a black, stinking cloud made up of all the evils of the world. Jealousy, hatred, and revenge circled above her head then flew out the window, spreading across the earth. When Pandora finally closed the lid, only one thing remained to save mankind from total despair in times of struggle and hardship. Hope had gotten caught inside the rim.
The wind blows Tamboli’s graying hair across his face. He tucks it behind an ear and takes a deep breath. “I positioned the piece in this exact spot for a reason.” He backs off down the hill a few steps to get the whole sculpture in his field of view. Tamboli turns around, facing the traffic, as he had done eighteen years before. This time, using the limb as a staff, he takes the steep steps down in his brown leather work boots, steady. When he reaches the flatland halfway down to the sidewalk, he stops and turns back around. “If you stand right here, you can’t see any of the buildings or electrical lines behind it. Nothing but sky.”
Looking at a painting, a person can suspend the knowledge of what is going on in the room around him and focus, really enter the work. With outdoor sculpture, the surroundings are part of the art. There is no way to suspend the laws of physics or shut out the 40-mile-an-hour traffic whooshing by on either side. When a person stands in that place—on the flat spot half way down the hill at the busiest intersection in the city–and looks east, he lets Pangaean Disc inhabit his full vision. Clouds float through empty space oceans. Steel rods reflect the sun. With a strong wind, oozing infants shiver in their artificial womb.
“Three years ago, the owners of the private property called me up and asked me to do something with my sculpture. They said it had become a familiar part of the landscape, said it blended in.” Tamboli breaks his brittle walking stick across his knee. He slings the small half to the ground over by a chain link fence a few yards behind Pangaean Disc. Tamboli drops his head and stares at the ground. “I agreed with them.”
“I never intended the piece to be static but always a work in process. It’s public art, and it’s just sitting out here.” He stomps his boot into the ground. “I expected people to come out and make marks of their own. I thought in this location it would get tagged with graffiti or something. But the only person who’s done anything to it is me.”
In 2006, Tamboli brought out his ladder and tools from his studio. He painted the steel map using a bright white base color to contrast the surrounding earth tones. He affixed a plywood ring around each of the 57 largest metropolitan cities. When he decided to undertake painting detail on the 50-foot sculpture, he started at the most obvious place. “I got very intricate around Memphis. I used more gold because of the African culture and Elvis, you know, The King. I decided it would take forever at the rate I was going, so the rest I sort of painted at random. Wherever I felt like painting a circle, I painted one.” In the center of 30 different cities, like London, Paris, and Beijing, Tamboli welded a foot-long metal rod. They extend from the map, skyward. “I call these prayer rods. I put them in to attract some kind of positive energy from above.”
Time is the fourth dimension of a three dimensional figure. For the last eighteen years, Pangaean Disc has stood on the same spot of earth, planted in the ground, drifting farther and farther away from other continents on other tectonic plates. The Earth’s surface has changed by miniscule measurements. Everyday, it will never be the same again. For the last eighteen years, technology has evolved into wireless signals transmitted through the atmosphere, bringing people across the globe closer and closer together.
In the five minutes Tamboli stands silently looking at his work, at least 40 cars speed by. He tosses the remaining half of his stick from one hand to the other. “I feel the same about it now as when I first put it out here.” He huffs and makes giant steps up the hill until he reaches the base of the sculpture. Tamboli strikes the stick against the steel cylinder, and an ominous clang resonates over the car noise. “What happens when you stop to see what’s really there in front of you?” Three plaster babies vibrate like tines on a tuning fork.
He looks down into the cylinder and lays his hands around the top. The babies settle into stillness as he leans forward, straining his eyes. His hair falls into his face again. “I was out here a couple of months ago. This is new.” Tamboli points to the rim of the glass skylight.
In permanent black marker, someone has printed “hope.”