A spectre is haunting the University of Chicago—the spectre of communism. At least, that’s what the campus tour guides tell bright-eyed prospective students as they walk past the brutalist artwork, Dialogo, every spring.
The abstract metal statue, with its powerful beams flowering into smooth bulbs and a violent hook sweeping over the top, was sculpted in 1971 by Italian-born artist Virginio Ferrari. Skirting the far-east side of the quadrangle, in the heart of the university’s verdant Hyde Park campus, the statue is forgettable enough—until you learn its supposed meaning.
Campus legend has it that at 12:00 noon on May 1st of every year, Dialogo casts a shadow that unmistakably resembles the hammer and sickle, the global symbol of Communism and the workers’ revolution. It’s said that Ferrari designed the statue and carefully placed it so that the conspicuous shapes would appear on May Day (which the rest of the world knows as International Workers’ Day). To engineer a hammer and sickle on any American college campus would have been a bold move in 1971, with the Cold War against the communist Soviet Union in full swing. But it would have bordered on downright treason at the University of Chicago, the home of Milton Friedman and his ilk—economists who pioneered and idolized the very principles of free-market capitalism that Communists across history have sought to destroy.
So is it true? The evidence appears to be mixed, at best. While the statue’s hook does appear to cast a distinct “sickle” shape at various points in the year (not only on May Day), to see a hammer in the rounded shadows that cross through the crescent requires a bit of imagination. The unimpressed crowds who gather around the artwork every May 1st seem to agree with sundial experts, who say there’s no angle at which the shapes could create a hammer.
Those left disappointed might instead look for meaning in the words of the artist himself: “What I want to call to mind in this sculpture are the four corners of the world,” Ferrari told the University of Chicago Magazine when the sculpture was first unveiled. “Three of the four forms emerge from strong, geometric elements, representing the diversity, pain, and depression in the life on any continent.”
Know Before You Go
On the northeast side of Pick Hall