Antony Gormley’s Row of ‘Phallic’ Sculptures is an Attack on Modern Art – and Geometry | Anthony Gormley


IIf it’s a penis, it’s a tragicomedy. Alert, Antony Gormley’s six-metre tall cubic sculpture, which the artist describes as a kneeling figure, has been accused by students at Imperial College London of appearing to have a startling three-metre erection. But imagine being that man, with tiny legs and colossally awkward horizontal arousal. Phallocratic? Rather, it would be a phallic farce, a depiction of masculinity collapsing under the weight of one’s own penis, crippled by his obsession with his own member.

Or not. Alert is an arrangement of rectangular blocks to roughly form a human figure: an abstract work. Gormley says he plays with architecture and anatomy. He certainly didn’t say he’s supposed to be phallic. He would be a better artist if he put it there. Tracey Emin’s colossal nude statue of The Mother was unveiled in Oslo this summer and wary minds have no secrets to uncover: it’s all to be seen, the fabric of our human frailty celebrated alongside the Munch Museum. Emin seems outspoken and courageous, while Gormley has made his reputation with a kind of bland humanism that doesn’t frighten the middle class — or doesn’t. His famous casts of his own body have barely perceptible limbs.

The new attack on Gormley for supposedly hiding a giant erection in plain sight could be the return of the repressed. He has always said he believes in the “beholder’s share”: the meaning that the viewer gives to a work. The openness, or a critic might say the banality, of his images leaves much to the imagination of the viewer.

Mocked and accused of obscenity… the works that featured in a previous Gormley furor. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA

The sculpture is still in the design stage, and students who look at the blueprint and see a huge penis should also consider that there may not be one. For this reason, and others, I feel compelled to defend Gormley. Alert was donated to Imperial College by venture capitalist Brahmal Vasudevan and his wife, Shanthi Kandiah, to decorate its new Dangoor Plaza in South Kensington. But student Alex Auyang, in a motion on the student union website, says it could “damage the college’s image and reputation” because of its potential “phallic interpretation”. This colossal male presence could be considered ‘exclusive’, the motion says, given Imperial’s gender imbalance problem: Only 41.8% of full-time students were female during the academic year. 2020-2021.

Is the motion a joke? Auyang told The Times, “I think it’s pretty clear that the motion has a sense of humor behind it, but my points are valid.” It’s so important to take a stand. The problem is that this act of attempted censorship, or ironic censorship, or whatever, is ultimately just another sad chapter in Britain’s flight from modern art. It seems that this ambitious artist can no longer express himself without being mocked or accused of obscenity. This row follows criticism of Gormley’s bronze street bollards as abstract willies or, when displayed horizontally on a beach, dog poo.

Gormley claims that the protrusion suggests the protruding legs of a squatting figure, bent at the knee. But that’s almost beside the point. It is not a realistic representation: it is a geometric extrapolation, a non-figurative work. You know, modern art. The student complaint puts forward a possible “interpretation”, then says that it is problematic. But how to criticize a single interpretation of a work open to several?

“Even if Gormley's unconscious triggered a priapic dream, so be it.  It's art for you” … the artist in his studio.
‘Even though Gormley is oblivious has pulled out a priapic dream, so be it. It’s art for you” … the artist in his studio. Photography: Manuel Vazquez/The Guardian

This latest public outcry from the sculpture resembles the row sparked by Maggi Hambling’s nude monument to Mary Wollstonecraft in 2020. Being a gay woman hasn’t stopped Hambling from being accused of ‘insulting’ the Georgian feminist by putting a naked woman’s body in the public space. Now Gormley has been detected just possibly – if you see it that way – putting a phallus in public space.

I’m not a huge fan of Gormley’s work, but you just can’t subject artists to that kind of suspicion and scrutiny and expect them to do a good job. Powerful public art only happens when artists are allowed to follow their own impulses. Even though Gormley is oblivious has pulled out a priapic dream, so be it. It’s art for you.

To accuse a statue with ambiguous meaning of being exclusive is as foolish as seeing Hambling’s nude as misogynistic. Imperial College already has a piece of public art – a statue of Queen Victoria, Empress of India, fully clothed with her head covered and with no sexual innuendo in sight. Is this the kind of statue we want more of? Thought not. Gormley’s work is interesting to say the least and let’s be honest – it won’t shame the university or oppress anyone.


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