This is a photo essay about a remarkable statue in a quiet corner of England and the controversy that ensued when she appeared as gift to a quaint fishing village in Devon.
Let’s start with a few facts. Her name is Verity (from the Latin Veritas or Truth). She stands 66.43 feet high on the harbor wall in Ilfracombe, England. She was created by the famous artist, Damien Hirst who has a residence in a neighboring village and a reputation around the world. Her stance is taken from Edgar Degas’s Little Dancer of Fourteen Years (c. 1881), but the artist says he was also inspired by images of Lady Justice and the Statue of Liberty. She stands on a collection of scattered legal texts and holds the traditional symbols of justice, a sword and scales. She is made of bronze supported by a single piece of steel internally, weighing 25 tonnes. She was offered as a long term loan (20 years) to the town and was installed in her current location in October of 2012. These are the “facts” as they are displayed on the accompanying interpretive sign at her feet. What follows is the controversy as related to me by the press and local accounts, and my reflections on the broader significance of it all. First, meet Verity in a picture montage. The story…after that.
She is a formidable force in the harbor and hard to miss! She has changed the landscape of Ilfracombe, and thus impacted the people who live there as well as those who visit. Certainly there were objections to a nude statue in the middle of a clearly public space, but the Europeans have been dealing with nudity in sculpture for some time. Michelangelo’s David in Florence, Italy comes to mind. There are hundreds of other publicly visible statues that offer more “visibility” than a living human could without getting arrested. Perhaps it is okay if it is a male statue, but not a female? Doubtful, still this is the country that gave the world Victorian propriety and the pilgrims (who later settled Massachusetts and burned witches for fear of their “carnal” ways). So perhaps there is some precedent for the objection, but I don’t think that is what is driving the protests, at least not primarily. Much of the concern about the other works of Hirst rises from his unusual interest in turning the inside out, to peel back the layers and show life beyond the outward appearance. He does this by exposing the right side of Verity down to the skull, the muscles, and even an open womb exposing her developed baby. A close up of the casting shows the details in an interpretive sign.
Some have suggested that Verity objectifies women, but by moving beyond the outward appearance, perhaps he is challenging the age old adage, “beauty is only skin deep.” To move beyond clothing, beyond the natural clothing of the skin itself, Verity exemplifies the power of women in their muscles, their cranium, and the ability to bring new human life into the world through their womb. Far from objectifying women, Verity reminds us that women are so much more than their beautiful outward appearance. They are strong, thoughtful and life giving. Perhaps people object to the reminder. They want women controlled, mono-dimensional and conforming to an expectation of clothing, fashion, and certainly not wielding swords in a stance of defiance that demands respect.
Others might object to how Verity had changed their landscape. This is a reminder of how fundamental landscapes and our sense of place are to the formation of our identity. Although the artist, Damien Hirst, worked closely with the town council and other regional authorities in a public way that included opportunity for people to express their opinions on the matter; several locals suggested that she was being “forced” into their landscape and their village would “never be the same.” Looking at her presence in the landscape, it is hard to deny they had a point about the change (even if they had been given the opportunity to voice concern).
Certainly, the tourism trade has increased in the last five years as people from all over the world come to Ilfracombe now to see Verity in person. They spend in the local economy driving up demand for lodging, food and art. Many of the visitors appreciate not only a 67 foot high statue, but art as a human endeavor. They shop for art in dozens of galleries that have sprung up in the town since Verity arrived. She is a relative newcomer to the landscape, but so are many artists who have moved to the community to practice their trade in what has quickly become an artistic “vibe.” The predominant employment in Ilfracombe before Verity was fishing and some agriculture in the surrounding fields, now it is tourism and art. One statue can transform the community, a blessing and a curse. The protest might arise because she is unclothed or partially cut open to reveal her “inner nature” beyond the outward appearance, but it might mask a deeper concern about the effects she has had on transforming the landscape and thus the identity of the community and its very composition of citizenry. This is not an uncommon response to change, particularly when one does not feel adequately represented in the decision-making process about changes to the landscape.
It may also be that people read in her stance a mockery of justice. She stands on legal texts, and hides the scales of justice behind her. What does this say about a law and order society bent on equality before that law? Is she exposing the fallacy of the British legal system, perhaps all legal systems. Perhaps this too, just reveals a deeper truth about women’s encounters with justice in our legal and social system. If she were in America, she might be hiding the even-handed symbol of the scales of justice because she is clearly on the “”mommy-track”. Her career will go on hold, she is not likely to get adequate or paid maternity leave to care for the child in her womb. The laws themselves keep her in a second-class status as she has to choose between the time the baby needs to grow up with her care and a career she could have had in the legal world or any other working environment. Trying to strike the right balance might cause anyone to hide the scales that represent the possibility of such a balance. Maybe some find it emasculating to see a 67 foot high woman stand defiantly in the face of societal norms. Let’s face it, some are just made uncomfortable by women who can both give birth to the next generation and assert their own rights in this generation, as she clearly seems to be doing.
Verity challenges us because she takes the ordinary and the expected and turns it on its head. Statues aren’t supposed to be so big, so obvious, so dominant of the landscape and defiant of conventions, so exposed and so unexpected. It is in the end why I really like Verity. The truth is that she stands tall and proud of everything a woman can be – beautiful, capable, strong, life giving, nurturing, confident, just, and unexpected. They probably complained about how the Statue of Liberty changed the character of New York Harbor when she first stood tall on her pedestal. She has come to symbolize so much that is good about the United States, its justice, its beacon of hope, its openness to the millions of immigrants who came to our shores heeding the call to the “tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free,” and the transformation of our identity as a result of those who came to her shores. We are the better for the influx, the change and the principles she stands for. Verity stands along Devon’s shores on the western edge of England; may she be that inspiration to this nation in a time when there still are tired, and poor and those who long for truth and justice.