Sunday 10 February 2013

Boy with buttocks and a frog packs his bags – Michelle Lovric

Since 2009 an incongruous outsider has dominated one of the most crucial views in Venice. The obtrusive guest is this blindingly white sculpture of a boy with a frog by American artist Charles Ray. He’s been placed at the Punta della Dogana, the tongue of marble that juts out into the Venetian bacino, once the perfect vantage point to drink in the Piazzetta of San Marco, the sweep of the Riva degli Schiavoni, the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. To the left are the grandest palaces of the Grand Canal; to the right the lozenge of Giudecca melts into the lagoon.

It was once described to me as the most perfect place to kiss in Venice.

But now all kisses are supervised by an outsize naked boy.

Boy stands like a Roman, legs spread. He’s eight feet tall – but his proportions are those of a child, creating, for some, an uneasy paedophilic aura. In one hand, the blank-faced boy clutches the limp frog, which seems to be dead. The frog hangs upside down, like the dead Mussolini suspended in front of the hating crowds.

And American art critic has praised the work as enigmatic and beguiling, a manifestation of shape-shifting, seeing it also as 'at once Greco-Roman and hyper-real'. According to this critic, the figure 'casually invokes time'.

Now Venetians love art, and have hosted the world-famous Biennale of modern art since 1895. But Boy with Frog is so much disliked by so many locals that guards had to be employed twenty four hours a day to stop people from pushing him into the lagoon, or inscribing those tempting white buttocks with graffiti. Eventually, after a call to arms for his destruction, he acquired a huge glass and steel cage, like an oversized telephone booth, in which he is encased every night

A Venetian has explained a possible meaning of the sculpture to me: ‘Venice is an amphibious city – that is what the frog represents. The boy is Youth. So Youth holds the dead Venice upside down in a humiliating position. Perhaps he killed her. Perhaps he didn’t. But he shows no respect to her corpse.’

No wonder so many Venetians hate the statue! Even if they don’t subscribe to this insulting interpretation, their favourite passeggiata culminates in a view of the lagoon filtered through the boy’s shiny buttocks.

Despite a petition and a Facebook group against him, Boy has mysteriously stayed in place for four years in a city where even a new window-sill can be refused permission because it does not conform with the all-important ‘tipologia veneziana’’

There have been repeated promises to remove the sculpture, which offends so many, and restore what was there before him: one of the romantic lamp-posts that shed a sweet rose-coloured light around the city by night. This was uprooted in 2009 to make way for Boy, and has never been seen since.

Meanwhile, Boy has stayed in place.

Another Venetian has explained to me that the statute has been ‘bait’, drawing the crowds to the point of the Dogana, where the owner of the sculpture, French millionaire Francois Pinault houses part of his art collection. I will say that his financing of the restoration of the Dogana, or Customs House, is a great boon to Venice, and it was carried out with remarkable sensitivity by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando. Boy was placed in front of the museum to mark the festivities of the opening, and it was thought that he would be removed soon afterwards. He was not.

If the price of the restoration of the Customs House is the continued presence of this boy with a frog, then Venice has paid highly. As the Gazzettino put it recently, many have been questioning the ‘"svendita" della città al primo imprenditore di passaggio’ – the way the city lay down for/sold out to the first passing millionaire.’

However, I am happy to report that the buttocks shall soon have a happy ending.
A former councillor for the ministero per i Beni culturali, Franco Miracco, recently wrote a hard-hitting letter to the Venice’s Comune and Soprintendenza ai Beni artistici e architettonici. He asked a simple question: what had happened to the authorization to leave the statue standing in this place?

What indeed?

It has been announced that from March 18th works will commence to remove Boy from his position. His destination is unknown, possibly away from Venice. And in his place will be erected a lamp post created from an original 19th-century mould in Mantova. It will be funded by a consortium of lighting companies.

As the Gazzettino rejoices,’ Insomma Bingo! Per la gioia dei veneziani "puristi", dei nostalgici o solo dei romantici.

I would say that this not just a gift for the nostalgic or for the romantics. This is history reasserting itself. Nineteenth-century history, as the original lamp dates back only to then, but living history in that the image of that lamp is held in the memories of living Venetians, those who loved to walk to the Punta della Dogana, those who loved to kiss there.

I hope that Boy finds a pleasant retirement somewhere in the countryside, in place where his presence is congruous with his environment. Venetian Macau, the subject of my last History Girls blog, comes to mind ....

Michelle Lovric's website


JO said...

What a wonderful title for a blogpost. Wherever he goes, I do hope he gets known as boy with buttocks and frog!

adele said...

Lovely post...rather unlovely statue and I'm glad he's being moved! Must be fun thinking of a suitable remark to scrawl on that buttock. Even if it proved impossible in the end. Venice could have held a competition in the newspaper or on Facebook!

Ann Turnbull said...

What excellent news! I have never seen anything more out of place than that weird statue - and the bored guards pacing around. This sounds like a victory for common sense. A romantic 19th century lamp post will be perfect.

Katherine Langrish said...

The cage looks dreadful. The statue itself (apart from the fact that I feel worried for the frog, and the way he's holding it seems cruel) might look all right somewhere else, but I'm glad it's being removed from that lovely spot. Totally distracting!

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

So glad to hear he's going. I can quite see why he's off-putting to prospective kissers!

Anonymous said...

Wow - I may not be an art critic or even much of an historian, but even I can tell when something like that is glaringly out of place. And as for in a romantic setting - yeesh! *shudder*

Glad to hear something a little more in-keeping will be replacing him.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Boy with buttocks and frog seems the perfect title for a book Michelle. And in defense of frogs, I'm glad he's going.