London College Students Are Freaking Out Over a ‘Phallic’ Sculpture

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Imperial College London
Imperial College London

College students these days are certainly prone to ideological dustups: currently, at Imperial College in London, a group of students are moving to block the installation of a sculpture by artist Sir Antony Gormley due to concerns that the steel structure, which certain students are claiming is “phallic in nature,” will “hurt the image and reputation of the college.”

The motion to block the sculpture, which is being distributed by the Imperial College Union, claims that while the sculpture is purportedly depicting a squatting human body, it instead evokes a phallus that amounts to a protuberance that sticks out “approximately three meters horizontally.”

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There’s “nothing inherently wrong with phallic imagery in art,” the motion continues, but the “phallic interpretation’s preoccupation with the penis could be considered inappropriate for a grand public display, especially given the statue’s size.” The Daily Beast reached out to the Imperial College Union for comment.

“Despite the support within the union, and that the paper has apparently been seen by senior college staff and Gormley’s team, I doubt that it will affect the installation of ALERT,” an anonymous Imperial College student told The Art Newspaper. “I think that this is not the sort of thing that the college would pull out of or listen to students about.”

There’s something inherently depressing, frankly, about young students reacting so vehemently to a sculptural interpretation of the human form. Even if the artwork is a penis in disguise: who cares?

The statue, entitled ALERT, consists of blocks of steel coated in stable oxide, ensuring that as it is exposed to the elements, it will take on a more rusty hue.

“Through the conversion of anatomy into an architectural construction I want to re-assess the relation between body and space,” Gormley explained in a statement. “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.”

Gormley’s work has been at the center of sex-related controversy before: in 2021, iron sculptures by the artist were removed from East Suffolk beach after detractors complained that they looked like sex toys, or in some cases, rabbit droppings.

It’s also not the first time a sculpture by Gormley has drawn the ire of students: in 2018, Clasp, a sculpture by Gormley installed at Newcastle University, was the subject of a protest by many students, who found the spindly structure to be a “weird thing,” “a piece of driftwood,” “ugly” and “horrible.”

“Public art can stimulate conversation and enrich our surroundings,” professor Eric Cross, the Dean of Cultural Affairs at Newcastle, said at the time. “The scale of this striking work and its prominent position will create a new focal point on campus, and give an opportunity to reflect on our relationship with others and our environment.”

The specific part of the new statue that the Imperial College Union appears to be taking issue with is the part of the rendering which Gormley claims is evoking knees. The students instead think that this part is a penis.

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

The Daily Beast also reached out to Gormley and Imperial College for comment.

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