Disability on a pedestal

Marc Quinn's sculpture of Alison Lapper in Trafalgar Square creates a tension between what we are supposed to think, and what we really feel.

James Heartfield

Topics Culture

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.

Though the choice of subject seems controversial, there has been surprisingly little opposition, just the manufacture of ‘controversy’. In fact, there is a strong consensus that the disabled are heroic. Putting Lapper alongside Nelson seems to say that her struggle is comparable to his. No doubt the challenges are great, but the outcome is not the same. Maybe there ought to be a sculpture to the people she employs to look after her and her son.

What tensions there are in the popular judgement of Alison Lapper’s sculpture are not likely to be made explicit in public controversy. Rather, the tension will be between the public’s explicit approval of the disability agenda, and its emotional reaction against the distortions of the body. Considering the popularity of corrective plastic surgery, there seems to be an unspoken preference for the body beautiful that clashes with the lip service played to disability.

Unfortunately, that is likely to be expressed in graffiti precisely because it cannot be said out loud. It is a tension between what we are supposed to think and what we really feel – and in this instance the official stamp of approval must be seen to win out, even if it convinces few people at an emotional level. We are supposed to think about her struggle with disability, but our evil side might be thinking: ‘What kind of man had sex with her?’

As a work of art, the sculpture is just unclear. Either a pregnant woman or a disabled woman would have been striking. But both together are just confusing. Is she pregnant, or just fat? You cannot tell what the distortions are caused by. And if you were to see it without the attending explanations, you would be forgiven for thinking that it was the artist, not nature, that had twisted the body out of recognition.

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