The Big Yellow Thing… Or, Another Mystery Solved

Galway Yellow

So, I’ve finally found what the large metal sculpture outside the NUI Galway library is. If you’ve spent any time at NUIG then you know what I’m talking about. Over the years it has acquired more than a few nicknames, usually just ‘The Big Yellow Thing’, but occasionally ‘The Squiggle’ or the more colourful ‘Archimedes’ Balls’ (see comment below).

Unsurprisingly, the BYT’s inscrutable presence in the heart of campus has generated many theories as to what the sculpture represents. Some say that if you view it from a certain angle it spells out the name of the institution (University College Galway, as it was at the time; but, name change or not, no it doesn’t). Others claim that if you stand in the middle of it you can’t be seen (easily disproved!) or, with a nod to the Comic Book Society, that it’s ‘a robot there to defend the university guardians against Green Lanterns’ (take that, art!). There are probably more, but what the BYT actually depicts is an abstract version of a ‘Celtic knot’, something I’ve lately mentioned to a few postdocs of the historical inclination and received… varied reactions!

Created by the artist Brian King in 1976, it turns out that the BYT has an offical title – Galway Yellow – and was presented to the University by P.J. Carrol & Co. Ltd., along with the Arts Council. Since then it has been placed on Galway City Council’s protected structure list. While that might surprise many of those who pass by the sculpture every day, it’s worth nothing that, as a representative example of King’s early work and of ‘modern’ Irish art in the 1970s more generally, Galway Yellow has a value beyond the intrinsic merits of the piece itself.

King himself, in the sculpture’s record from the NUI Galway Art Collection, has the following to say:

Galway Yellow (painted steel sculpture; 343x432x740cm) is a derivation of the Celtic knot. Abstracting it liberates it from its original term of reference, although it is still semi-geometric in character. I have done away with the pedestal, so that it relates more closely to viewer’s own space and size. As a steel structure it should be rigid, inert, heavy – but I have eliminated this with colour, robbing the surface of its own features. Consequently it appears (even though it is visually structural) weightless and full of movement. The yellow creates a lyrical mood despite the sculpture’s sense of scale.’

Credit where it’s due, I think King is successful in achieving his artistic aims with the piece even if, for decades, the sculpture’s main value to the NUIG student population has been as a convenient meeting spot. ‘I’ll meet you at the Big Yellow Thing’ was commonly heard around the University up to just a few years ago. More recently, the Library plaza (perhaps too grand a term!) has been closed off for months at a time due to a succession of refurbishment and construction projects. The space is now open and heavily trafficked again, but it’s hard to deny that the impact of Galway Yellow has been drastically reduced.

In order to make room for the new ‘glass pods’ installed over what was once the open-air section of the canteen, the sculpture has had to surrender its original centrality (as in the photo above) and has instead been relegated to a corner of the plaza. It has also been raised up on a low but noticeable pedestal, a contradiction of King’s own vision which subtly distances the piece from the people around it. Though still a presence, Galway Yellow is more like an afterthought now, a nebulous shape in the corner of your eye and a far cry from the sharp, unavoidable declaration of modernity it previously represented.

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2 Responses to The Big Yellow Thing… Or, Another Mystery Solved

  1. Kevin Connolly BS'81 says:

    There was a satirical competition in the student newspaper to name it, in College Week of 1978 or 1979 and the winning name was Archimedes’ Balls.

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