Thursday, May 30, 2013

Marc Quinn's "Alison Lapper Pregnant" on San Giorgio Maggiore

"Alison Lapper Pregnant" under the roseate sunset light of May 27
"Non ho parole" ("I'm speechless"), posted one indignant Venetian on Facebook beneath his own cell phone photo of the work you see above when the British artist Marc Quinn's "Alison Lapper Pregnant" first appeared a few days ago beside the church of San Giorgio Maggiore.

As this remark appeared on the anti-Gabbiotto-in-Piazza-San-Marco site, I think it expresses as much about how fed up Venetians are with the appropriation of their city (and its most famous sites) by commercial or outside interests as about the work of art in question. But it seems like an appropriate response to the work itself as well, and one that the artist himself would probably appreciate, as the piece requires us to confront in monumental and heroic scale an image of a human being whose form falls well outside what we usually talk about, much less see.

Under the dark stormy sunset light of the exhibition's opening on May 28 its purple tint is more pronounced
It's hardly a bold new gesture for an artist to foreground what a local newspaper had no qualms yesterday in calling "freaks", and such work is always going to raise questions (as it should) about the artist's motives, and sensationalism, prurience, exploitation. But as much as I sympathize with many Venetians' sense that their city is under attack by malignant forces from without and unscrupulous traitors within, part of me thinks that "Alison Lapper Prenant" really might work as art--that is, something with the potential power to incite thoughts, emotions, ideas, discussion--not just spectacle.

A little background is in order, though, especially for those of us who don't live in England, or London. The model for "Alison Lapper Pregant" is an English artist who was born without arms and with shortened legs. She was institutionalized by her family at an early age and grew up, as they say, "out of sight, out of mind" of both her immediate relations and society as a whole.

The original 3.55 meter (about 11.5 feet) sculpture of "Alison Lapper Pregnant" was made of Carrara marble, weighed 12 tons, and was displayed from September 2005 to late 2007 upon the fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square.

Michelangelo's David is sculpted of Carrara marble, which has been used since the age of Ancient Rome for important public monuments (the Pantheon and Trajan's Column both use it): for the very embodiment of heroism and valor and beauty. To sculpt the figure of Alison Lapper in this material is a bold statement, and perhaps a rather obvious one as well in the way it simply inverts our typical hierarchy of value and moves someone whom society has long been intent on not seeing into the very center of the public gaze. But whatever its obviousness, I'm not aware of any comparable sculpture of such a subject in such material on such scale. The work incites us--or aims to incite us--not only to re-think our notions of what we are in the habit of recognizing as an "acceptable" human form, but what we think of as a life worth living, of heroism, and of motherhood.

Some of what's known as "the beautiful people" arrive in water taxis for the opening of the Marc Quinn exhibition
It makes me think of two books I've recently read: Andrew Solomon's Far from the Tree, with its intelligent and compassionate examination of the challenges and pleasures of raising any child who for one reason or another falls outside society's narrow sense of what is "normal" (deaf, autistic, schizophrenic, or Down Syndrome kids, for example; prodigies or dwarves or children born of rape) and Barbara Taylor's and Adam Phillips's On Kindness. The latter title suggests, among other things, that one of the reasons the very notion of unsentimentalized kindness has fallen into such disrepute in our age of glorified Hobbesian competition is that we live in a culture that is terrified of vulnerability. Kindness, Phillips (a brilliantly literary psychoanalyst) and Taylor (a historian) suggest, rests upon our capacity to acknowledge that even the most robust of us has known helplessness and, if we live long enough, are likely to know it again. That vulnerability is an inescapable fact of human life, and is what unites each of us to the other. "Alison Lapper Pregnant" strikes me as a heroic image of both truly human vulnerability and strength.

Of course, everything I've written above has more to do with the original sculpture of "Alison Lapper Pregnant" than with the inflatable version (12 meters high/39 feet) that now sits beside the church of San Giorgio Maggiore. Does the piece still work as well if the material from which it is made suggests not Michelangelo and Trajan but some huge blow-up Paul Bunyan advertising a lumber yard?

The Patriarch of Venice certainly does not think so. In today's Gazzettino il direttore dell'ufficio Beni culturali del Patriarcato don Gianmatteo Caputo cites "Alison Lapper Pregant" as the prime example of works of art that do not fit into the sacred context in which they are placed and notes, interestingly enough, that the Church was misled into believing that it was the original marble version of the sculpture that would be placed beside San Giorgio Maggiore. The inflatable version he compares to simply a "banner" (his exact word), whose only purpose is to advertise the large exhibition of Marc Quinn's work (more then 50 pieces, 13 never before seen) put on by the Fondazione Giogio Cini on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore.

I think he has a valid point.

So, as I said, I'm of two minds about this work. After all, though I haven't yet seen the exhibition of Marc Quinn's work on the island, much of what I've seen of it online--from the solid 18-karat gold sculpture of Kate Moss (which manages to be both astonishingly crass and dull) to his transgendered Adam and Eve--seem as obvious as his work on Alison Lapper has always been in danger of being.

A second piece by Marc Quinn, a massive sea shell, can be seen at lower left of photo
To invert our culture's notion of beauty, to present a new vision of beauty and heroism, doesn't the piece itself have to be as beautiful as, according to The Guardian's Rachel Cooke, the original Carrara sculpture in Trafalgar Square was ( A painter friend here in Venice exclaimed yesterday after seeing the current work up close that it was just plain ugly: the way the ears were formed (which are supposed to be, after all,"normal" human ears), and especially its purple tint. "Why that purple?" she asked me. "It's like he's trying to make you feel queasy."

I had no response. Carrara marble is white or blue-gray. Perhaps the makers of the blow-up version were aiming for blue-gray but ended up with purple? But the original marble work was, Rachel Cooke notes in her piece cited above, "white and dazzling". So, really, I have no idea, and am not sure, finally, quite what to think about the inflatable piece on San Giorgio Maggiore. Or at least, I can't give a single non-conflicted opinion.

I guess all I can ultimately say is that I suspect that the real work of art--that is, what it actually makes happen or accomplishes--occurs within each of us, and is unpredictable and unquantifiable, and can go forward long after we've left the presence of the piece in question. Some art does something, for some of us, sometimes, and if that's all we can finally say about it, it's still saying a lot. I'll be interested to see and hear and read if the piece on San Giorgio Maggiore works for anyone else.


  1. I like the original and, living near London, saw it in its original situation in Trafalgar Square. I've seen Alison on TV and she is one feisty lady! This inflatable version does appear to be an advertisement. But, hey-ho, the medium is ephemeral. It's not going to be a permanent feature and it will get people addressing their own prejudices and foibles.

    1. How great that you were able to see the original, Andrew! I wish it were also here. I'm still a bit ambivalent about this large version, but I think you're take on it is the right one and I hope is the one that will carry the day here. Venice's Mayor Orsoni was quoted on Friday as saying the work is "inappropriate for the site". Coming from the guy who signed off on "il gabbiotto" in the Piazza this was greeted with derisive laughter. After all, the Patriarch objected because it was an advertisement, but Orsoni obviously has no problem with ads in Venice's most famous sites. So just how backward does Orsoni want to appear: Does he object because it's a nude woman (though the Church does not), or because she's a handicapped nude woman & he believes such people should be kept out of sight? Would love to hear his explanation.

  2. Thank you for your informative and well-written post, as well as the transformative quality of your photographs. The second one, in particular, is a capolavoro.

  3. Have you seen this version of the sculpture?

    1. Thanks, Sasha, for the link. I'd seen it and have been assuming that that one--which was created for, and is shown, as part of the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Paralympics--is actually the same large inflatable version currently situated on San Giogio Maggiore. Haven't seen this in print, but it seems likely, though its purple or mauve tint is not as evident in the photo you link to because of the lighting and is more apparent in my pics taken during a cloudy sunset.

  4. "I guess all I can ultimately say is that I suspect that the real work of art--that is, what it actually makes happen or accomplishes--occurs within each of us, and is unpredictable and unquantifiable, and can go forward long after we've left the presence of the piece in question."
    I, really, agree with what you said in these words.
    I was in Venice for a few days on last June. I saw Quinn's work, I didn't know it.
    I felt something very similar to your feelings about it.
    Your photos are even better than mine! Did you take them with a tripod? I'm an absolute beginner!

    1. Your comment made me think some more about the piece, bibliomatilda, and I really wish it was the marble version that was in Venice. I hear too many people who see it say that they think it's "ugly" and they always comment on its purple color as a reason (or even THE reason). I think the fact that it is inflatable and purple interferes with many people's inclination to take it seriously. In this inflatable version, it is too easy to dismiss and not even bother to think what it might be about.

      I'm glad you like the pics, but I'm still learning about a new camera I got in January and still trying to figure out the best way to prepare them to be posted on this blog with a program called Lightroom. I felt like I couldn't get these ones quite right, but, well, I keep trying and hopefully learning. I didn't use a tripod, but in the first and last photos I had the benefit of some very nice light. I generally go out to photograph in the morning or evening when I know the light will be nice and not-too-glare-y (unless glare is what I'm after), and I find this helps. This working according to the best natural light seems to be what a lot of people whose pics I admire--such as the photographer on the Blu Oscar blog about Venice--do.