The Koan: a sculpture, a culture, an enigma

The White Koan, a modern art sculpture at the University of Warwick, won’t be unfamiliar to those of you that have visited the campus. Purchased by Warwick in 1972, the Koan has become more than just a sculpture; a huge following and culture has grown up around the piece and it has become a mascot of sorts to the University…

The White Koan was designed and created by Liliane Lijn in 1971 as part of the Peter Stuyvesant Foundation City Sculpture Project. Before finding its home on Warwick campus, it was placed in Plymouth and then at Hayward Gallery in London.

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The Koan has featured multiple times in University publications, such as The Boar:

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It does not take long for the Koan to strike a controversial cord, inspiring  different reactions from its viewers.UWA-PUB-WB-2-1-69_0007

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The Koanists were campus Druids who came out to worship the Koan. They believed that it was ‘the earth-bound manifestation of the immortal Koan, the creator of the Universe’.

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The Koan inspired many theories about how it operated. It has stripes of fluorescent lights and often rotates. glad its lit UWA-PUB-WB-2-2-141a_011

Some believe that is manually operated from the inside, others think it’s a mechanical contraption, whilst some accredit to a higher power…

This article should lend an insight:

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Here are some more urban legends about the Koan from the 70s:

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At one point, the presence of the Koan was put to a vote:

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Luckily, the majoriy were in favour of keeping the Koan… but it was a close call!

The Koan also plays a role in University life and events. It was lit up in honour of a royal visit:

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There was also Maypole dancing around the Koan:

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Sounds like fun!

The Koan has been endlessly popular. There has even been a whole cartoon strip dedicated to the Koan (definitely worth a look!)

It even inspired a Nightline advert:

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There’s no denying that the Koan is part of the Warwick community.

The spelling of ‘Koan’ is actually a pun on the Japanese word Ko-an, meaning a problem without a solution on which to mediate. It seems appropriate then that the Koan has developed such a culture of myths, theories and urban legends. We’ll just have to accept that the question of the Koan is not meant to be answered.


To find out more about the Koan and read more of our student publications, come into the MRC.












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6 thoughts on “The Koan: a sculpture, a culture, an enigma”

  1. “The Koan was left on the East Site for a time before installation, and an old tramp was found to be found living in it”… HILARIOUS!!!

    I wonder.. if he’s still in there… and if so, does he now have…a pointy head…?!?

  2. Yes please…I would love to knock and see if he’s still there… when can we do it…and do we have to wear a special Koan visiting all white outfit…?!? I could probably wear my trusty Elvis suit even tho Coventry locals often tell me my bottom looks big in it…

      1. Professor Clark, once again, I have been forced to bow to you superior knowledge and intellect regarding these matters. It is for this very reason that I recently donned my outlandish Las Vegas era Elvis Presley rhinestone encrusted white suit so that my triangular silhouette could comfortably gain me access to the Koan in order to take a peek and determine whether our homeless friend still resides within this majestic monolith.

        However, it was instantly very apparent that after enrobing myself with the said Las Vegas era Elvis Presley rhinestone encrusted white suit… I was beginning to pose unanticipated and unprecedented problems for the the campus population and possibly…even national security… Somehow, someway… people, cars, bikes, entire Leamington Spa to Coventry double decker buses, cats, dogs, campus foxes and other wildlife were…disappearing without a trace whenever they approached me or vice versa… Indeed, I now belatedly realise that this phenomenon is solely responsible for causing my much treasured sketchbook of World War 1 Heroes to disappear…Additionally, when did eventually manage to enter the Koan, our homeless friend was nowhere to be seen…but could this have been due to the new powers I had inherited from my suit and triangular shape…?!?

        After contacting The Graceland’s Phenomena Team in Memphis Tennessee, they concluded (through very careful scientific deliberation) that the problem was indeed strangely spooky… However, they could not be sure until they had consumed several immense servings of Elvis’ favourite peanut butter, banana and butter thrice fried toasties. For more information regarding this grandiose dietary sustenance, please consult the following link:

        After nursing their fried peanut butter and banana toastie paunches, the Graceland’s Phenomena Team convincingly established that by wearing the Las Vegas era Elvis Presley rhinestone encrusted white suit​, I had unwittingly created what is now to be known as the Elvis Triangle…​ (For the latest, up to date scientific findings regarding this phenomenon, please consult the forthcoming issue of the King Elvis Journal – Volume 594, Issue 3, pages 206 – 9,502. However, if you are much too impatient for this to be published, it has recently been discovered that the noted Elvis biographer, Michael Schulte does make extended reference to it in his tome “Elvis’ Tod : Szenen aus meinem Leben​”, available in the World class Warwick Library collection at Classmark No: PT 2680.U36. Please see this link for more details:

        The Graceland’s Phenomena Team have conclusively proven that my white silhouette was producing a mysterious phenomenon not too dissimilar from that other spooky old chestnut, the Bermuda Triangle. Whilst Mister Bermuda could not boast of a significant rock and roll musical career of any merit whatsoever, he obviously acquired global notoriety when the area around his local Y fronts superstore caused many an aircraft and boat to disappear…

        Whilst on the topic of disappearing objects, I can confirm to the world that the reason for my sudden and unexpected absence from work in recent days is a direct consequence of being abducted by a group of secret government agents appeared outside Tocil Mansions without any warning, in their sleek black, non standard government issue limousine… The following men were responsible – if you see them in the viccinity of Coventry, please run for the hills:

        Indeed, I was forcibly relocated to a secret military research installation​ where I am ​now composing this (obviously, while wearing my treasured Elvis Presley rhinestone encrusted white suit​). It appears that my unflattering shape now has endless military and strategic possibilities…especially now that the sinister government scientists have realised that my abilities to govern the disappearance of all things can be enhanced by feeding me with…Dairylea Triangles…

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