Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Addio to Marc Quinn's Inflated Alison Lapper (aka "Breath")

When it first appeared beside the church of San Giorgio Maggiore last spring I was intrigued by the many questions raised by the artist Marc Quinn's large inflatable "sculpture" of Alison Lapper. It wasn't just that here was an example of the human form that would not have been treated monumentally and heroically in the past, but whether the whole sense of heroism that was present in Quinn's original Carrara marble version of this sculpture (displayed in Trafalgar Square) was lost in its translation to a material more evocative of the floating cartoon figures in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade than Michelangelo's David.

Additionally, the office of the Patriarch of Venice raised the related question of whether this inflatable version was more advertisement (for Quinn's show on San Giorgio Maggiore) than art. I wrote about all this last May, and wasn't really sure what to make of the piece, though the subject herself and importance of depicting a fuller range of the human form and manner of being inclined me to think this piece did at least potentially do one of the best things art can do by making us see and think about things we often overlook (http://veneziablog.blogspot.it/2013/05/marc-quinns-alison-lapper-pregnant-on.html)

But after visiting the piece last week, I now think that it's time for it to go--as I suspect it soon will, as the Quinn show closed at the end of September.

Of course it's not that the subject of the piece has changed, but that the material in which it's embodied--always subject to questions about its suitability and the messages it carried--has now become so faded by exposure to the elements as to lose whatever capacity it once arguably had to convey heroic monumentality. Not only has the color of the piece changed from a vaguely marblesque mauve to a blotchy pink, but the seams in the figure have become so visible as to become themselves a primary focus of one's attention--which can't really be considered a good thing, unless somewhere in the world there's a culture whose heroic ideals are embodied by a beach ball.

A comparison of the appearance of Quinn's work at the end of May, left, and at the middle of October, right
Maybe I'm just being fussy, but if I were a visual artist I wouldn't want a work of mine to remain on display in such a compromised state.

And maybe I'm being unfair, but my visit to the inflatable piece last week reinvigorated all my doubts about an artist who bothered to produce a life-sized solid-18-carat gold sculpture of Kate Moss.

Description of Marc Quinn's large inflatable work attached to its large base
Just consider the description above now located on the base of the large inflatable figure. The idea that this depiction of Alison Lapper in Venice was in any way "held up by the breath of those talking about it" is both amusing and absurd to anyone who remembers reaction to the piece here last spring, when the only thing that both the Patriarch and the overwhelming majority of Venetian residents had to say about it was that it had no place on San Giorgio Maggiore. In fact, though I can't claim to have made a formal survey, I didn't speak to single person in Venice who liked it. I asked friends, acquaintances, and strangers: the most positive response I received was from a woman who lived on Giudecca and said that, though she was sympathetic to the subject matter, she didn't like the piece. Everyone else usually just said they hated it, it was ugly, and why did it have to be so damn purple?

The placard above states that "if people lose interest in [the work] and are unwilling to give it the attention and resources it demands the work will cease to exist in the physical world", but of course this is blatantly false. Venetians have had no more to do with the persistence of Quinn's sculpture in a place they don't want it, than they did with the long unwanted residence of Charles Ray's "Boy with Frog" at the tip of La Dogana.

In both cases I seemed to think the sculptures were of more interest and had more artistic merit than were generally accorded them by other residents of Venice, but it's the false self-congratulatory populist rhetoric by the artists of both works that finally irritates me. Neither "Boy with Frog" nor the pretentiously-entitled "Breath" depended upon the willingness of "people" to "give [them] the attention and resources [they] demand" (such as an armed guard), but on the largesse of private foundations who kept them in place in spite of Venetian response. And it's this in spite of that Venetians have gotten sick of: the billboards that remain for years on cherished monuments in spite of the fact that all work behind them is finished, the growing number of cruise ships and tourists who flood the city in spite of acknowledged dangers and damages....

Indeed, if "the collective consciousness" of the vast majority of Venetians were allowed to actually express its opinion of Quinn's work on San Giorgio Maggiore it would have done so long ago not by "holding it up" in any way, but in a simple quite literally deflating gesture. And but for the fact that the subject of the work merits thoughtful consideration, I'd almost be willing to say at this point that the artist's windy pretension might benefit from a good pricking--that would set it off on an appropriately frantic comic flatulent flight, like an overinflated untied balloon let loose over the basin of San Marco.


  1. I will refrain from commenting on this piece, although I would say that I praise the attempt to show a disable woman's courage and strength. I would like to say that I am really disgusted by the artist's choice of materials, rubber and gold? There isn't anything less sustainable than gold, if I had seen that sculpture I would have been violently appalled. I wonder how many gallons of cyanide where released into the environment to yield 50 kg of gold. He could have used a different metal and still create a piece of art. With great power comes great responsibility....

    1. Oh, it's so true! I am violently appaled when I think about the mounds of organic waste that every human leaves on the Earth surface while he or she is in the process of his or her so-called living.
      Issuing tons of excrement decade after decade makes me ashamed to be alive.

  2. I hadn't thought about that aspect of it, Laura, but it seems to me that sometimes the sheer obscene wasteful and even destructive expense of the production process is more important to certain contemporary art works than the concepts behind them--which are often simple and uninspired enough to be fully expressed in a little one-panel newspaper cartoon. (Much of Jeremy Deller's work in the Great Britain pavilion at the current Biennale strikes me in this way, though it's not as absurdly wasteful as a solid-gold Kate Moss.)