“Mary On The Green” was a ten-year-long fundraising campaign for a memorial to the influential 18th century feminist theorist Mary Wollstonecraft to be erected in London’s Newington Green. It came to a dramatic conclusion with the unveiling of a statue earlier this month, which has had a divided public reception. Created by the artist Maggi Hambling, the statue is for Wollstonecraft, not of Wollstonecraft, and features an “everywoman” figure. It is a relatively tiny figure, emerging out of a surge that some interpret as a “a swirling mingle of female forms”. It is naked, slender and toned, with a physique that adheres to non-inclusive beauty standards. Except for, well, luxurious pubic hair. Its visual politics aside, it’s also strangely lacklustre for all the collective energy that went into it.
Beholding or consuming art is subjective, but I’m with the chorus who finds this work uninspiring.
However, most of this chorus has only just been introduced to this work – although as a publicly-funded campaign, there were democratic involvements in its processes. Most significantly, the final shortlist before the commission was awarded had come down to Hambling and to another artist, who according to historian Dr. Fern Riddell on Twitter happens to be a man. That a man should create this homage to Wollstonecraft was shot down by public opinion.
Except, Dr. Riddell shared images of the two finalist works side-by-side, and… You’d have to be quite wilful about refusing to admit the advantages of the one designed by a man, to prefer Hambling’s trophy-like sculpture. The other one was both aesthetically attractive as well as functional. It even had curved bench space that could allow a person to sit within the work of art, and perhaps hold a meaningful conversation (with the statue, as one does with the sea or with a tree, or with another person). Of course, I know these are lofty ideas – drunks would have passed out on those benches, troublemakers would have graffiti-ed it, pigeons would inevitably have showered their insults all over it too. Maybe, if not almost definitely, some people would have had sex on it too (in the tradition of Wollstonecraft’s daughter, of course, who was the author Mary Shelley. She is widely believed to have hooked up on her mother’s grave with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley).
Overall, that tasteful and overruled sculpture was a rendition with pleasing possibilities. There’s an interesting lesson here on the dangers of over-democratising art, even as the broader public discourse is very heatedly still on questions of representation, appropriation and more.
Amidst creating new work of my own, I’ve been mired in such anxieties, second-guessing, seeking opinion, learning, questioning, withdrawing in worry and more. Then, I had a different, personal glimpse into how a renowned artist had relied only on trusted collaborators who had somehow failed to convey pressing issues, resulting in controversy.
I’ve arrived at the conclusion that well-considered art comes together neither by consensus nor by sovereign choice-making. There’s an interwoven listening stage, gathering inputs. Then, there’s doing what one’s heart tells one to, respectfully and with acknowledgement that one only knows what one knows. Finally, there’s the letting go.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 19th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.