I t doesn’t sound like the kind of thing you’d take your children to see: a 3.5-meter-high, gleaming marble statue of a naked woman who is not only eight-plus months pregnant but also physically deformed, with no arms and stunted legs. Yet just such a statue was installed in London’s refurbished Trafalgar Square last month, and it has sparked quite a fruitful debate about public art vs. “museum art” — about art in general, really.
Trafalgar Square has not historically been known as a go-to place for art, at least not the outdoor kind. (The National Gallery, on its north side, has fine examples of the indoor kind.) There are plenty of statues, but with the exception of a small sculpture of Minerva, they are all standard products of the heroic school: men (either kings or soldiers), horses and lions. Towering over the lot of them atop a 52-meter column is Lord Nelson, the one-armed, one-eyed hero of Trafalgar. Around the square sit four great pedestals, or plinths. The most interesting thing about these is that only three are occupied. The fourth plinth, in the northwest corner, was supposed to hold another man on a horse, but funds ran out and it has stood empty for most of its 164 years.
Which is where the fun began. A few years ago, as London’s mayor drew up plans to turn the stately but stodgy square into a lively piazza, a government-appointed committee recommended using the fourth plinth for a permanent rotating display of modern pieces. The first selection, Marc Quinn’s head-turning “Alison Lapper Pregnant” depicts a brand-new kind of hero — a female artist friend of his with congenital deformities. And although it has been in place only a month, the buzz has yet to die down.
Some critics dislike “Alison Lapper” for a variety of reasons. Some object to the blunt representation of fairly extreme disability, calling it overtly didactic and a smug act of political correctness. Others have limited their criticism to aesthetics. One said the marble sculpture looked “shiny” and “slimy” and was “much too big” But many have acknowledged being pleasantly surprised by it. The Observer’s critic said the statue’s “sheer verve and loveliness knocks into a cocked hat the tired debate about what constitutes public art. This is public art, and let that be an end of it.”
Mr. Quinn, who had earlier won renown for sculpting a self-portrait out of his own frozen blood, has confined himself to pointing out that Lord Nelson was also disabled, by battle injuries, and that the square “needed some femininity.” Ms. Lapper, for her part, remarked at the unveiling: “At least I didn’t get here by slaying people.”
Meanwhile, the public has proved divided but thoughtful. “I think they should put disabled people on all the other (plinths) now,” one gentleman told the BBC enthusiastically, “Maybe if Professor Stephen Hawking gives his permission.” Another was not so sure, saying deformity was “an awful thing to happen” but that “Alison Lapper” should be displayed in an art gallery. “I don’t see how (it) equates with this place,” he said. “The most famous things in Trafalgar Square over the years have been the pigeons. I think they should put a pigeon up on the Fourth Plinth.”
The fact is that merely by generating this much attention, the statue is doing just what the mayor and his selection panel had hoped it would: It is helping to reanimate Trafalgar Square, the heart of London. That is a good thing, for all the hand wringing of traditionalists. Cities, unlike statues, are not carved in stone — or shouldn’t be. Neither are ideas. Just as an avant-garde building can sit comfortably among historic ones, a pregnant disabled woman can surely take her place among a nation’s warriors as an example of fortitude. And it is part of the function of public art to reflect all such changes — in social opinion as well as artistic convention. (It is ironic that “Alison Lapper Pregnant” does that while at the same time not being all that artistically unconventional. Despite the shock value of its subject and location, the noble-looking seated figure looks rather like a cross between the armless Venus de Milo and an ancient fertility goddess.)
Whatever one’s views of this statue’s merits, the “fourth plinth” debate has so far been both refreshing and constructive, not just for Londoners but for people interested in public art in cities worldwide. The best part is that it will continue. “Alison Lapper” is scheduled to stay on her plinth only until April 2007. It will then be replaced by the German sculptor Thomas Schuette’s “Hotel for the Birds,” a kind of architect’s model made of translucent, multicolored Perspex. It should please those who have always said modern art was for the birds. At the very least, it will please the pigeons.
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