Away from the cold 21st Century steel of ABS and the Nanoscience Hub, the University of Sydney is a living museum. Nearly a century old, the desks of Woolley, Merewether, and the Quad have been sponges for four generations of student boredom.
Amid the babble of peace signs, anarchist symbols, and many (so many) poorly-drawn dicks, there are some genuine works of art. From the classic desk debate to the highest echelons of philosophical enquiry, here are three of the best graffiti around.
The classic. A feature of wooden desks worldwide, the multi-layered graffito discussion is at once familiar and original.
Though immediately recognisable, no two examples are the same. Like a confused snowflake, this timeless (and pointless) narrative weaves its way around the very grain of the wood it is written on. Individual authors are distinguished by both ink colour and ideology, and the reader is led on a wild rhetorical rollercoaster ride.
What begins as a passionate outpouring of affirmation is followed by bitter dissent: the discourse is immediately polarised. Caught in a moment of uncompromisingly vehement opposition, the author spared no time even for spelling or grammar, carving out their rebuttal with maximum efficiency.
But from the philosophical hinterland springs an unexpected compromise. Striking a firm middle-of-the-road position, the voice of reason calls into question the very basis of the argument. In one fell swoop, pretence is swept away and artifice laid bare upon the benchtop.
If only all academic debates were this transparent.
The mind of an uninterested student is unrivalled in its philosophical capacity. Impenetrably complex, this piece is a window into such a mind, one cast in the interrogative mood.
Etched deep into the timber, with no markings to betray its age, the text is unbound by temporal restrictions. Where the text peers inwards into the mind of the author, it also looks outward across the USyd student population— past, present and well into the future.
The question can be read in two ways: as a legitimate intellectual concern, or a biting work of satire. Treating it seriously, the author poses an interesting problem. Not simply asking whether the notion of ethics itself is ‘wrong’, the author wonders if we even know what it means to ask the question (and so on…). Clearly, whatever lecture had them scrawling on the desk in weary ennui also inspired some serious contemplation.
But read satirically, the lines become a series of meaningless tautologies, turning a genuine concern into an exaggerated caricature of postmodern philosophy. The reader’s point of reference becomes obscured—nothing is certain, and nothing valuable can be learnt.
Yet however you choose to understand it, the act of reading is itself transcendent. The language of boredom is universal.
Man in the Mahogany
Tucked into a dark corner of the Quad, the Philosophy Room has over the years been slowly accruing culture like a forgotten tub of yoghurt.
One piece of art, barely perceptible, has sunk right into the battered and beaten benchtop, locked in conflict with the very canvas from which it is borne.
The man in the desk is complex, a work singular both in style and form, with its own nuanced understanding of art and the world. Where some would write the whole desk off as one giant, shitty graffito, the unknown artist behind this work chose this chaos as the backdrop for something greater.
While some markings are carved deep into the timber, this artist’s use of ballpoint pen gives the work an aura of ethereality. It is at once consumed by and separate from its surrounding milieu—like the university student who feels just as unique as everyone else.
The real question is of course, who is the man in the desk? A hatless caricature of the great Abe Lincoln? Your average gentleman with astronomically high eyebrows? Or is he all of us, the everyman?
These questions challenge us all. Just like the man in the desk, we tend to face them with a dazed expression.