Collect Pond Park in downtown New York is a middle ground, squeezed between a few places no one wants to go. It is a strip of greenery surrounded by concrete which is bordered by various courthouses. Most of the people who walk work nearby and they tend to cut quickly. But the addition of a new sculpture, posed directly in front of Manhattan Criminal Court last week, changed that. In the middle of the park benches, in front of a few shrubs overgrown with vegetation, Medusa with the head of Perseus stands on a small pedestal.
Luciano Garbati’s 7 foot tall bronze coin depicts Greek myth as a vengeance fantasy. Like a still image from a Quentin Tarantino film, Garbati’s sculpture exudes both stern ferocity and ripe sex appeal. Medusa is supple, toned and nude. Her eyes stare at the viewer, and with a man’s head hanging from one hand with a sword in the other, she seems like a challenge, “You are next. “
In the UK, another important Medusa sculpture was unveiled at the same time. British sculptor Susie MacMurray’s ‘Medusa’, on display at London’s Pangolin Gallery, features a handmade copper chainmail dress fitted all the way down, before transforming into a serpentine fringed backdrop. The production of the play lasted eight months and she was assisted by a group of art students.
“I wanted her to be an Amazonian in attendance,” MacMurray told The Daily Beast of her jellyfish. “I didn’t want her to be the idealized Barbie playing problematic gaze. She is so strong, the masculine gaze is reflected … I wanted her to be voluptuous. It’s pretty important to me that she wasn’t a size zero. She is a size 16. I think she is quite noble.
Although Argentina-Italian Garbati finished his work in 2008, it went viral 10 years later after #MeToo galvanized women across industries to call for more attention to workplace misconduct issues and of sexual violence.
Last week he was unveiled outside the courthouse that hosted Harvey Weinstein’s rape trial earlier this year, in which the disgraced producer was sentenced to 23 years in prison. Garbati said The New York Times that “thousands of women” had written to her about the play, calling it “cathartic.”
As Ovid wrote, Medusa was a young and beautiful woman whom Poseidon raped inside the temple of Athena. She was a victim, but Athena punished her anyway, turning her into a monster with hair snakes. Anyone looking at her was quickly turned to stone. Perseus, considered a Greek hero, beheaded Medusa. This solidified her mystique as a feminist martyrdom and uplifting account of what happens in a patriarchy when women exercise their sexuality too boldly.
Classic Italian goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini captured this scene in Perseus with the head of Medusa, a bronze sculpture from 1554. With his iteration, Garbati wanted to give Medusa his reward.
Its presence is imposing; even on a recent, cloudy Monday afternoon, almost everyone who passed stopped to watch. Their interactions with Medusa served as a sort of consent meta-commentary.
A man selling masks put down his cart, walked over to the statue, pulled out his phone, zoomed in on his bronze lips and took a photo. Someone had put a bouquet of flowers at his feet; a passer-by took them off.
Two friends lingered in front of the room. One of them explained the sculpture controversy, in so many words. “Some people are mad at that, because of…” the woman whispered, gesturing wearily towards Medusa’s hairless crotch.
Although Medusa made a striking figure in Collect Pond Park (her home until next April), criticism of the artwork was inevitable. Some have disputed that this visual ode to feminism was completed by a man. Others laughed at her pin-up proportions and perky tits, which are so gravity-defying.
In an interview with Zoom from his Manhattan hotel room, Garbati ignored the critics.
“It’s not like I made the sculpture saying, ‘I’m here and I’m going to make a monument to #MeToo,’ he told The Daily Beast. “The sculpture was made in 2008. When people reacted to it in 2018, no one knew who was behind the sculpture, so what’s the point? [of caring that a man made it]? Even if you prefer a woman to do the sculpture, if we want to change things, we are. All of us together. We men also need to change the way we think. It is important that we do this, otherwise it is impossible to change things with only half of the population.
Her Medusa looks like her because that’s how her icons, Cellini and Carravagio, made her. “I always refer to the classics,” when it comes to proportions, Garbati said. “It’s a formal decision. Yeah, maybe 12 years later in retrospect I could say, “ I could’ve done things [differently]. I work with what they were working with at the time. The idea is perhaps quite problematic. But that’s what it is.
Garbati does not describe Medusa as the prototype of female rage. “People say that, but I don’t think so,” he says. “She had to stand up for herself, so she’s tense, like a victim – a victim who could outweigh the abuser. That’s the limit she sets – you come for me, I’ll defend myself.
But if it is interpreted as a monument to vigilantism, why put it outside a courthouse? “The sculpture refers to a myth,” Garbati explained. “So it’s a metaphor, always. You look at the picture and you think of justice. You don’t think, ‘I’m going to do it violently.’ “
Tarana J. Burke, the activist who started the #MeToo movement, posted a photo of the sculpture on Instagram, with a large red X crossed out. “This move is not about retribution or revenge and it is certainly not about violence,” Burke wrote in his caption. “It’s about HEALING and ACTION. . This statue doubles the idea that this movement consists of hunting down men. It also ties our healing to vengeance and casts the semblance of justice that comes out of the justice system as a retribution rather than a liability.
Even with its detractors, Medusa has become iconographic in the #MeToo era. Garbati thinks his mind is “in the air”. Damien Hirst made his take with a 2013 gold sculpture showing his severed head engulfed by hissing snakes. The Met exhibited classic pieces depicting Medusa in 2018, tracing its cultural transformation “from grotesque to beautiful”.
Gianni Versace chose a rendering of the head of Medusa for his brand’s logo; decades later, it is still the emblem. The Italian designer also emblazoned the doors of his Miami villa with his face; he thought it projected sensual power, not unlike the models he dressed.
As Elizabeth Johnson noted in her 2016 viral essay, “The Original ‘Nasty Woman,” some cultural portrayals of Medusa stripped the monster of her sex appeal, misogynistically calling her a shrew. “For centuries, Medusa has been used to criticize powerful women,” Johnson wrote. “Do you have a few minutes?” Do a Google Image search: Enter the name of a famous woman and the word Medusa. “She denounced the names of the women who received the Gorgon treatment: Hillary Clinton, Madonna, Oprah, Nancy Pelosi.
Susie MacMurray also used Medusa as a muse for a garment sculpture she made, which is currently on display in her solo show. Murmur at the Pangolin Gallery. The exhibit opened last week, around the same time as Garbati’s unveiling in New York City. She learned of the existence of her Medusa in the morning of an interview with the BBC Radio 4 program, Woman’s hour.
“I don’t remember the first time I heard the story of Medusa,” MacMurray told The Daily Beast. “It’s kind of embedded in culture, like Grimms’ fairy tales.”
MacMurray has made a series of clothing sculptures, which she calls “almost self-portraits”. It started after her husband died in 2009, and she produced a play called “Widow.” From a distance, it looks like a feathered dress with a long train; take a closer look and it’s made up of almost 10,000 silver dressmaking pins. She has made several other similar tactile works of art.
In 2014 came “Medusa”. MacMurray acknowledged the pop-feminist tendency to turn Medusa into some sort of vengeful girlboss to ruin the men who hurt her. But she wants her triumph not to come down to simple retaliation.
“By giving Medusa that kind of furious revenge, by doing exactly what they did to her, aren’t you turning her into a victim?” MacMurray asked. “You don’t allow her any possibility of change, or for her to rise above it. Why is someone’s only possibility of power to destroy someone else? It’s not a particularly good story, and it’s not fair. If we all avenge each other forever, there is no possibility of ever evolving.
The Catharsis is great for a while, MacMurray thinks, but “then you just have to go from there”. She called Garbati’s art “beautiful,” but finds her placement in front of a courthouse problematic. “The courts are a place of justice and hopefully not a place that talks about revenge,” she said.
MacMurray recounted #MeToo and its fallout from her memories of growing up during the women’s liberation movement. “I was a teenager in the 1970s,” she says. “We had this empowerment cycle and then we had a backlash. “Oh, those feminists who burn bras. This led to a time when many women were slightly reluctant to say they were feminists. You don’t want a perpetual cycle of turning into a monster over and over again. “
MacMurray’s sculpture is flexible, and the artist says people always want to reach out and grab it. “You are not supposed to touch the sculpture, just like you are not supposed to touch bodies without asking yourself,” she says. “It’s always a problem with my job, all the time. People want to touch it. And I want them to want it.
While working on her play, MacMurray read the seminal 1976 essay “Le rire de Méduse” by French feminist Hélène Cixous for inspiration. In this document, Cixous encourages women to express themselves and to free themselves through writing.
“One of the metaphors she uses is that Medusa isn’t screaming horror in Caravaggio’s painting of her, but she is actually laughing,” MacMurray said. “She reveled in her power, she was not destroyed. I find this really striking.
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