Imperial College unveils controversial ‘phallic’ statue on campus

Students have argued that it looks like a man sporting ‘three-metre-long genitalia’

A controversial statue called ALERT has been unveiled as a permanent sculpture at Imperial’s south Kensington campus today, October 4th.

The six-metre stack of weathering steel blocks was described by the artist, decorated sculptor Sir Antony Gormley, as a figure “balancing on the balls of the feet while squatting” and “surveying the world.”

But some Imperial students have argued that it looks like a man with an erect penis, with 29 out of 30 Students’ Union council members voting for campaigning against its installation.

An Imperial spokesperson responded to the backlash: “Sir Antony Gormley is one of the world’s foremost living artists, and we are grateful to have been gifted one of his iconic sculptures.”

ALERT was donated to Imperial by an alumnus and his wife. They described their intention as highlighting the “vital importance of collaboration across disciplines” by bringing Gormley’s art to a world-renowned STEM university.

The artist also claimed to want to contribute to the “cultural richness” of the South Kensington campus with his art. He said: “The work will be an objective correlative of the collective vision of the College and a declaration of its life and purpose to the outside world.

“Through the conversion of anatomy into an architectural construction I want to re-assess the relation between body and space. Balancing on the balls of the feet while squatting on its haunches and surveying the world around it the attitude of this sculpture is alive, alert and awake.”

While none of this sounds problematic, it is how the statue actually looks that spurs controversy.

How the artist described it vs. how students saw it (Image credit: Imperial College Union)

An Imperial Student Union motion passed to stop the statue’s installation argued that the supposed “abstract human figure” could “hurt the image and reputation of the college” with its potential “phallic interpretation.”

The motion reads: “While the artist’s intended form may ‘[evoke our] community of scientific research’ the phallic interpretation does not. The name ALERT could also be understood as referring to the statue’s phallus being erect.”

Students behind the motion clarified while there is “nothing inherently wrong with phallic imagery in art,” the statue’s “preoccupation with the penis could be considered inappropriate for a grand public display, especially given the statue’s size.”

They also thought having sizeable male genitalia on permanent display is “exclusionary” for highlighting the problem of gender imbalance in the STEM-focussed university – as females only made up 41.8 per cent of full-time students in the 2020-2021 academic year.

The installation of the statue was given the “go ahead” by Kensington and Chelsea Council, who thought it is “acceptable from a design perspective and would preserve the special architectural and historic interest, character and significance of the listed building and the character and appearance of the conservation area.”

But some students have accused the uni of trying to disguise the statue’s phallic resemblance in the early stages of planning, as they showed a photo taken from the back that hides the three-metre-long forward protrusion. The SU motion argued that this “suggests that this interpretation, and backlash, was not unforeseen by some individuals within the college.”

They further claimed that students were not consulted in the decision to install the statue, with a student saying: “I think that this is not the sort of thing that the college would pull out of or listen to students about.”

Some think the uni purposely showed a photo of the statue from the back (image on the left) that hides the controversial protrusion (Image credits: left to Imperial College London and right to Felix)

In response to the student’s complaints, Sir Anthony Gormley denied any phallic implications behind his work and attributed the controversy to “overactive imagination.” He praised students for being critical of “the decisions and context in which they are working” but insisted that “their objection is founded on a misinterpretation.”

This is not the first time the artist has been involved in controversy due to sexual interpretations of his work. Four iron sculptures installed by the artist on an English beach last year were described by local residents as looking like “sex toys.”

Feature image credit: Imperial College London and Felix

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