Twelve-feet high in marble, Marc Quinn’s sculpture of Alison Lapper naked and pregnant displays her disability, shrunken legs and no arms. The work has been hailed as daring and controversial.
But monumental art is not supposed to be controversial, according to the critic John Willets. He made the point years ago that the public placing of an artwork made it important that it reflected consensus. The bust of Nelson Mandela erected on the South Bank in the early 1980s illustrates the problem. While heroes on horses tend to be taken for granted, Mandela’s bust was regularly vandalised, making it more like a performance piece or kinetic art than a monument (Mandela’s rising stature has changed the nature of the statue since).
The monuments to Lenin and Stalin in the Eastern Bloc were supposed to cement their places in history. But instead they illustrated the transience of political fortunes. The sculpture of Alison Lapper looks like a monument, but characteristic of our own indecisive times, it will stand for just 18 months. Expect that the decision to take it down, though, will also be deferred.
Quinn has often shown an interest in the way that the material can pull against the form of a work, as with his head moulded out of his own frozen blood. Rendering flesh in marble has always had a measure of perversity about it. Movement and colour is so central to what people are, that marble makes them seem like they are dead, or mummified, like the people petrified in Vesuvius’ lava.
Does Quinn intend that the marble substance, or the monumental style should pull against the subject matter? It is not clear whether Alison’s heroically posed head is meant ironically or literally. If the former, it is cheap; if the latter, it is cheese.