chapter  30
13 Pages

Sculpting Body Ideals: Alison Lapper Pregnant and the Public Display of Disability

In 2005, artist Alison Lapper was thrust into fame when her 11.5-foot tall, 13-ton sculptural portrait, Alison Lapper Pregnant, was unveiled on the fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square. Lapper agreed to being cast in the nude by British artist Marc Quinn when she was seven months pregnant and to be placed on public display; many have called the piece a collaboration. The controversial sculpture has brought widespread attention

to the model’s body and her life story. Lapper, born without arms and with shortened legs, is an alumnus of British institutions for disabled children and programs for disabled artists, a now single mother, and an artistwhomakeswork about her embodied experiences as a disabled woman. Carved from precious Italian marble and placed on a pedestal among statues of naval captains, Lapper has been called a

CHAPTER 30

contemporary heroine of cultural diversity, while the work has also been regarded as a tasteless publicity stunt for Quinn. The exposure of Lapper’s body transcends the fact that she is nude, for Lapper grew up in insolated environments of public institutions and had limited interactions with public life; for Lapper, the work is a true coming out. Alison Lapper Pregnant makes a public statement about this disabled woman’s right to be represented as a productive social subject and a reproductive sexual being and her right to represent others. This essay will interrogate the sculpture’s

representation of disability within the contexts of Trafalgar Square, the genre of Public Art, as well as in comparisons with Quinn’s previous series of sculptural amputees, The Complete Marbles (2002), and, foremost, with Lapper’s self-representations. I will argue that Alison Lapper Pregnant significantly responds to, as well as transforms the history of, its particular space and interacts with the populations who inhabit that space. Rather than displaying trite political correctness or simple shock value, as much of its criticism wages, the work plays monumental roles in the histories of both disability representation and art. As a public spectacle, it recycles, and I will argue contemporizes, the representation of disability as both heroic and freakish. Further, Lapper’s photography and her recently published memoir are key components of such discussions, as they provide perspectives by and a voice to the disabled subject on display. By weaving together these contexts of and reactions to Quinn’s and Lapper’s works, this essay underscores the necessity of placing the works of disabled and non-disabled artists in dialogues with one another and with larger histories of visual culture. Public art raises issues of social and

artistic representation and the visibility and invisibility of certain members of

society. Public space and its monuments have been gendered male and raced white traditionally, and public space is largely ableist in attitude, not to mention accessibility (or lack thereof). Public art, when the most effective, creates dialogues about the role of art in society and whom is included and excluded in the notion of the ‘‘public.’’ By honoring individuals marginalized and erased by dominant values and the structures which personify them, many more contemporary public art projects have explicitly protested the status quo. These public art forms, in which I contextualize Alison Lapper Pregnant, embody cultural battles for and of representation. The sculpture produces Lapper as a

representative of the historically underrepresented. Lapper has positioned the work at the forefront of such initiatives, stating: ‘‘I regard it as a modern tribute to femininity, disability and motherhood. : : : The sculpturemakes the ultimate statement about disability-that it can be as beautiful and valid a form of being as any other.’’ She acknowledges how her body becomes a monument to bodies and identities that have been socially devalued, shamed, and excluded frompublic lifehistorically. Lapper goes on to note: ‘‘It is so rare to see disability in everyday life-let alone naked, pregnant and proud. The sculpture makes the ultimate statement about disability-that it can be as beautiful and valid a form of being as any other.’’1 Here, she characterizes her body as a form of anti-monument, for it represents the ‘‘other’’ to traditional subjects of public monuments, as well as an anti-ideal. Positive feedback about the sculpture also champions it as a liberating anti-ideal.2 The work may function to force the viewer to question their perceptions of the ‘‘ideal,’’ while also questioning whose ideals Lapper is purported to represent. The work functions visually on con-

fusions between the ideal and anti-ideal. Quinn’s work is specifically a quotation of

eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Neoclassicism. Neoclassical figurative painting, sculpture, and architectural programs taught lessons on heroismandmoral virtue, often by depicting the deeds of great and powerful men.3 InWestern culture from the Renaissance to today, thisNeoclassical form is characteristically employed for public statutes of religious and political heroes. Neoclassicism and its Classical heritage communicate philosophical and political ideals through mathematically constructed aesthetics, specifically, in ‘‘whole’’ bodies. Quinn subverts the signification of Neo-

classical form as the ideal ‘‘whole’’ in Alison Lapper Pregnant (2005) and in his series of life size,marble sculpturesof amputees,The Complete Marbles (2002), which adopt particularly Roman qualities of portrait likeness. By using many high profile disabled models, such as artist Peter Hull and the confrontational ‘‘freak’’ performer and punk rock musician, Matt Fraser, Quinn produces depictions of recognizable subjects and celebrities. Titled with the subjects’ proper names, these works challenge how the viewer perceives the body in art, as well as ineveryday life, aswhole and/orbroken.4 Quinn titled this series The Complete Marbles strategically. The Elgin Marbles are precious Classical sculptures appropriated from the Parthenon in Greece (produced c. 438-423BCE).TheElginMarbles,manybroken and missing limbs and heads, were amputated from their architectural base (the Parthenon); they are fragments of profoundly aesthetic ‘‘wholes,’’ for the Parthenon remains a cultural icon today for its integrated, carefully orchestrated balance and proportion and its intense, methodical control of aesthetics. Extracted from theTemple toAthena, themarblesboth fragment and ‘‘stand’’ (or symbolize) one of the greatest symbols of power and wealth in Western history-specifically one famous for its ideal wholeness. Quinn’s title for the series, The Complete Marbles, places

contemporary disabled bodies in these historical legacies, and they are designated as ‘‘whole’’ by their own counter-conventional body standards and disarming beauty. Quinn’s artistic procedures andmaterials

are central to the significances of his works. Like all of the pieces in The Complete Marbles, Alison Lapper Pregnant was sculpted in Quinn’s studio in Pietrasenta, Italy, the center for Carrara marble-the same marble sought by Michelangelo and many Neoclassical sculptors. Alison Lapper Pregnant took 10 months to craft from the stubborn substance,which contains exalted histories and symbolic significances. Quinn is quite particular about the material, as he literally goes out of his way to use it, and he prefers this marble for its ‘‘intrinsic and metaphoric content.’’5 Carrara marble provides a luminosity thatmakes his amputees shine and radiate, like works from the Greek Hellenistic period. Many critics deem Quinn’s art historical

references as subversive, specifically because he focuses on disabled bodies. For example, art writer for the Sunday Times, Waldemar Januszczak, states the following about Alison Lapper Pregnant:

My italics here underscore how Januszczak describes Quinn’s use of amputees in art

historical, specifically Classical andNeoclassical images, as confrontational and revisionist, as if the works are affronts to these traditions because of the amputees featured. This comment suggests that certain social prejudices against amputees function in critical interpretations of Quinn’s work. The form of the Lapper sculpture has been the target ofmuch criticism; however, criticisms against the artistic value of Alison Lapper Pregnant (the work) may suggest simultaneous rejection of Alison Lapper pregnant (as an embodiment and social subject). Many have charged Quinn with capitalizing on the shock value and taboo nature of disabled bodies in public spaces.7 The work functions to make such stereotypes visible and open to public debate. On the other hand (or stump), positive

evaluations of the Alison Lapper Pregnant further complicate how the sculpture represents disability in the public eye, as they purport Lapper tobeahero.This idea recalls the stereotype of a disabled hero that is premised on sentimentalization of and low expectations for disabled people in society. Whatkindofhero isLapper in thesedescriptions, one who dismantles notions of appropriate versus shocking bodies? Or one who rehashes the stereotype of ‘‘overcoming,’’ which functions to ignore social constructs of disability and is based on the problematic notion of disability as an individual ‘‘problem’’? Framed as the representation of a hero, the sculpture celebrates Lapper’s impairments and perhaps also de-politicizes, or literally aestheticizes disability, as a marginalizing social construct, for the public. Or perhaps it redefines our ideas about heroism and makes a disabled figure a role model, in a positive light. Lapper’s heroism may also be problem-

atically tied to her pregnancy, such that motherhoodbecomesameans forLapper to ‘‘overcome’’ disability by conforming to standards for women’s roles in society, a

point which Kim Q. Hall has interrogated. Hall quotes Quinn: ‘‘For me, Alison Lapper Pregnant is a monument to the future possibilities of the human race as well as the resilience of the human spirit.’’8 Hall frames this comment within political propaganda that has imposed the duty upon women historically to reproduce the nation; such dogma is similar to that expressed throughout Trafalgar Square by the national heroes depicted. Hall argues that the sculpture is championed by Quinn and many others because it confounds the taboo nature of disabled bodies in public spaces, as well as patriarchal and heterosexual values that assert that reproduction validates women. Yet, Hall’s persuasive arguments reframe how Lapper’s presence in the square plays upon traditional gender roles and disability stereotypes only tangentially, for the sculpture’s and Lapper’s own consistent divergence from convention affirms the work’s adamant non-conformity to ‘‘family values.’’ Mainstream discourses that breed women for motherhood suggest that a productive female member of the society is a reproductive one, specifically within the institution of marriage. Far from glorifying a nuclear family, Lapper was born to a single, working class mother and is herself an unmarried mother, who has benefited from public programs for disabled artists. Many may view Lapper’s choices as amoral and her subsistence as a public burden, therefore she hardly acts in the legacy of national heroes. Lapper’s maternal situation defies ideals

of both society and of art for women’s bodies. Pregnant bodies, seenmost often in art history as fertility figures and virginal Madonnas, occupy a liminal status, as both an ideal state of the femalemotherhood, yet one that contrasts with the conventions for the sexualizednude, particularly for twentyfirst-century eyes. Popular representations have tended to idealize pregnancy socially,

yet they also veil the pregnant female body, reinstating its preferred existence within the proverbial home. Pregnancy is glorified and yet stigmatized and indeed often considered a disability. However, images of pregnantwomenhave become trendy lately, particularly among the elite, with the celebrity ‘‘baby boom’’ displayed in the aesthetic ‘‘bumps’’ on otherwise perfect bodies and within the romanticized unions of the Brangelinas and Tom-Kats of the world; Demi Moore, Melania Trump, and most recently, Brittany Spears have been featured by mainstream women’s magazines as socalled liberated covergirls and centerfolds, revealing their scantily clad and fashionable pregnant bodies. Again, these pregnant bodies are framed specifically within dominant social ideals and values (with perhaps the exception of Spears and the notorious ‘‘Fed-Ex’’), values to which Alison Lapper could never conform. Alison Lapper Pregnant confuses perceptions of the body in art history and popular culture, ultimately because, for many, the work assertively provokes the fear that the disabled body will reproduce another ‘‘damaged’’ child-from a ‘‘broken’’ body and a ‘‘broken’’ home. The work advocates controversial reproductive rights for disabled women and for single women more broadly. Further, any attempt on Lapper’s part to fulfill her role to reproduce the next generationmay produce a disabled one, which remains a horror rather than a triumph, according to mainstream values and exclusive social standards for quality of life. Lapper’s maternal ‘‘acts’’ poignantly fail to service social ideals, as the sculpture becomes pregnant with ambivalent meanings. Viewers’ reactions to the work as shocking

and/or inspiring seem polarized, and yet both connote, to varying degrees, the desire tomake a lesson out of the disabled body, in order to justify its display.Manywhocritique the work and Quinn’s The Complete Marbles

series demand explanation about the cause of the models’ impairments and the usefulness of such displays to society. Januszczak has also stated: ‘‘With a subject as serious as the lossofhuman limbs,or thebirthofachild toadeformedmother, it is absolutely incumbent upon the gallery to cease playing aesthetic games and to make clearer the artist’s intentions.’’9 This quote expresses viewers’ desire for medical diagnosis to make the worksmore palatable and less sensationalistic. However, the sculpture also provokes some viewers to question their own desires to know ‘‘what happened’’ to the body and assumptions that the disabled body necessarily connotes accident or victimization. The notion of making the disabled body

intoa lesson is relevant to the realmofpublic art specifically, within which the body becomes amonument to instruct, for public arthasaduty, in theeyesofmany, toeducate and inform. The origin of the word ‘‘monument’’ derives from Latin nomere, meaning ‘‘to remind,’’ ‘‘to admonish,’’ ‘‘warn,’’ ‘‘advise,’’ and ‘‘instruct.’’10 Poignantly, this word origin emerges also in the word ‘‘monster,’’ as scholars of the freak show have pointed out, explaining how the disabled body has historically been seen as an indicator of either supernatural foreshadowing or scientific mistake. The use of the disabled body as a lesson has included public exploitation of so-called medical anomalies, practices which have reinforced medical models, crossed genres into freak shows, and staged the disabled body as an instructional object for the non-disabled viewers. The nineteenth-and early twentieth-century freak show entertained and affirmedmiddle class spectators’ senses of ‘‘normalcy,’’ which was constructed specifically in binary opposition to the strikingly ‘‘abnormal’’ spectacle. The freak show is another relevant com-

parison for considering the role of Lapper’s body in a public space, particularly one that

serves as a tourist attraction11: ‘‘She is presented ‘like some 19th-century fairground exhibit,’’’ one critic stated.12 In the freak show, the disabled and other extraordinary (exotic,minority) bodieswere eroticized; the nudity of the sculpture, to which some take offense, is intrinsic to its unashamed display of the pregnant disabled body and its Neoclassical form; it places the work in both a history of art and a history of displaying the body as spectacle, in the freak show, pornography, and other voyeuristic venues. This context raises a key question: does the sculpture exploit Alison Lapper? Lapper is benefiting from the attention

the work has drawn to her own art and her life, as she recently published a memoir (2005). In it, she relatesQuinn’s sculpture to her own self-portrait nude photography, with which she expresses comfort in her own skin and challenges her personal history of being considered physically defective and sexually unattractive. Addressing the controversy regarding the nudity of the statue, Lapper has written:

She attributes the controversy of the sculpture to a society that is prudish to nudity in general, as well as to pregnancy and to disability specifically. Many may deem the work amoral, and therefore in direct opposition to Neoclassical, moralistic traditions, and yet, as Lapper articulates, moral judgments are subjective to the eyes of the beholders.