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The Antony Gormley ‘phallic’ sculpture row is an attack on modern art – and geometry

If this is a penis, it’s a tragicomic one. Antony Gormley’s six metre tall cubistic sculpture Alert, which the artist describes as a kneeling figure, has been accused by students at Imperial College London of seeming to have a startling three-metre erection. But imagine being that man, with tiny legs and a colossally inconvenient horizontal arousal. Phallocratic? 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 to roughly form a human figure: an abstract work. Gormley says he’s playing with architecture and anatomy. He certainly has not said it is meant to be phallic. He would be a better artist if he did put it out there. Tracey Emin’s colossal naked statue The Mother has been unveiled in Oslo this summer and there are no secrets for suspicious minds to detect: everything is on view, the stuff of our human fragility celebrated next to the Munch Museum. Emin seems explicit and brave, while Gormley has made his reputation with a kind of bland humanism that doesn’t frighten the middle class – or didn’t. His famous casts of his own body have barely noticeable members.

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

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

The sculpture is still at the design stage and students who look at the plan and see a huge penis should also consider the fact that it may not be there. For this reason, and others, I feel obliged to defend Gormley. Alert has been 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 “hurt the image and reputation of the college” because of its potential “phallic interpretation”. This colossal male presence could be seen as “exclusionary”, says the motion, given Imperial’s problem with gender imbalance: just 41.8% of full-time students were female in the 2020-2021 academic year.

Is the motion a joke? Auyang told the Times: “I think it’s fairly clear that the motion has a sense of humour behind it, but my points stand.” It’s so important to make a stand. The trouble 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 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 they were displayed horizontally on a beach, dog poo.

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

‘Even if Gormley’s unconscious has released a priapic dream, so be it. That’s art for you’ … the artist in his studio.
‘Even if Gormley’s unconscious has released a priapic dream, so be it. That’s art for you’ … the artist in his studio. Photograph: Manuel Vázquez/The Guardian

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

I’m no big fan of Gormley’s oeuvre, but you simply can’t subject artists to this kind of suspicion and control and still expect them to do good work. Powerful public art only happens when artists are allowed to pursue their own impulses. Even if Gormley’s unconscious has released a priapic dream, so be it. That’s art for you.

Accusing a statue whose meaning is ambiguous of being exclusionary is as daft as seeing Hambling’s nude as misogynist. Imperial College has a public artwork already – a statue of Queen Victoria, Empress of India, fully clad with her head covered and not a sexual innuendo in sight. Is that the kind of statue we want more of? Thought not. Gormley’s artwork is at the very least interesting and let’s be honest – it won’t bring any shame on the college or oppress anyone.

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