Antony Gormley’s series of ‘phallic’ sculptures is an attack on modern art – and geometry |  Antony Gormley

Antony Gormley’s series of ‘phallic’ sculptures is an attack on modern art – and geometry | Antony Gormley

IIf this is a penis, it’s tragic. Antony Gormley’s six-metre cubist sculpture Alert, which the artist describes as a kneeling figure, has been accused by students at Imperial College London of appearing to have a staggering three-metre erection. But imagine being that man, with tiny feet and a colossal uncomfortable horizontal arousal. Masculinist? It would be more like a phallic farce, a depiction of masculinity collapsing under the weight of its own penis, disabled by its obsession with its own member.

Or not. Alert is an arrangement of rectangular blocks roughly forming a human figure: an abstract work. Gormley says he plays with architecture and anatomy. He certainly didn’t say it was meant to be phallic. He would be a better artist if he got it out there. Tracey Emin’s colossal nude statue The Mother was unveiled in Oslo this summer, and there are no secrets for suspicious minds to spot: all is visible, the stuff of our human frailty celebrated next to the Munch Museum. Emin seems plain and brave, while Gormley has made his reputation for a kind of soft-spoken humanism that doesn’t scare the middle class – or didn’t. His famous body casts have few noticeable limbs.

The new attack on Gormley for allegedly hiding a giant erection in public may be the return of the oppressed. He has always said that he believes in the “spectator’s share”: the meaning that the viewer gives to a work. The transparency, or a critic might say banality, of his images leaves much to the viewer’s imagination to do.

They were mocked and accused of obscenity… the works that appeared in an earlier Gormley rage.
They were mocked and accused of obscenity… the works that appeared in an earlier Gormley rage. Photo: Joe Giddens/PA

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

Is the move funny? Auyang told the Times: “I think it’s pretty clear that the move has a sense of humor behind it, but my opinions stand.” It is so important to stop. 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 this aspiring artist can no longer express himself without being mocked or accused of vulgarity. This series follows criticism of Gormley’s bronze street pillars as abstract willies or, when displayed horizontally on a beach, the dog.

Gormley claims that the projection suggests the legs of a crouching figure bending at the knee. But that’s almost beside the point. This is not a realistic depiction: it is a geometric extrapolation, a non-representational work. You know – modern art. The students’ complaint highlights a possible “interpretation,” and then says it creates problems. But how can you find fault with a single interpretation of a work open to many?

“Even if Gormley's unconscious has unleashed a priapic dream, so be it.  This is art for you” … the artist in his studio.
“Even if Gormley is unconscious he’s got released a priapic dream, so be it. This is art for you” … the artist in his studio. Photo: Manuel Vázquez/The Guardian

This latest public sculpture outcry is similar to the controversy sparked by Maggie Hambling’s nude monument to Mary Wollstonecraft in 2020. Being a gay woman did not save Hambling from being accused of “insulting” the Georgian feminist by putting a naked female body in public area. Now Gormley has been spotted possibly – if you happen to see it that way – putting a phallus in public.

I’m not a big 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 pursue their own impulses. Even if Gormley is unconscious he’s got released a priapic dream, so be it. That’s art for you.

Accusing a statue whose meaning is ambiguous as exclusionary is as silly 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 not a sexual hint in sight. Is this the kind of statue we want most? I thought no. Gormley’s artwork is interesting to say the least and let’s be honest – it’s not going to bring any shame on the college or oppress anyone.

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