The return of the giant genitalia

Peter
Peter Jackson
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Every few years, someone revisits the controversy over the big vagina on the wall. The topic was broached most recently by Geoff Meeker in his media blog at thetelegram.com.

I’m referring to the “Red Trench,” Don Wright’s oversized sculpture depicting a bloody-looking trench gouged into sand.

The work was commissioned by the provincial government in the 1980s, and went on display in a busy open stairwell at the Confederation Building.

Before long, the huge, labia-like depiction had become the talk of the town. Thousands of politicians and public servants passed by the sculpture every day, and the visual similarity was hard to ignore. Some were offended, others merely uncomfortable, and a few downright juvenile about it.

When it hit talk shows and the media, the government tried to defend it. Eventually, they decided it wasn’t worth the grief. They took it down and, instead of finding a new home, put it in storage where it remained for five years.

There is an element to this story that still offends me today. I’m not offended by suggestive art, unless I feel it is cheap or gratuitous. Neither am I offended by the public’s reaction to this work or its subsequent removal.

What I am offended by is the elitist scolding handed down from arts gurus such as former provincial curator and arts critic Peter Bell.

Bell was on a Telegram panel 12 years ago tasked to select the “Newfoundland artist of the millennium.” It was part of expert- and reader-driven surveys in various categories to kick off the year 2000. The panellists picked Wright as top choice.

Wright founded St. Michael’s Printshop in the 1970s, and was rightly touted for his instructive as well as artistic contributions.

But Bell took the opportunity, as he had at the time of the uproar, to sling more mud and invective at the unsophisticated brutes in government who dared remove the “Red Trench” from the wall. And in 2005, he resurrected the controversy again, in a letter to The Telegram:

“(Wright) was publicly humiliated by the government, which had ears only for a bunch of hysterical secretaries who couldn’t recognize the artist’s meditation on his approaching death.”

This quote really gets at the heart of the matter.

First, there is a misconception that the vagina image only arose in the minds of the unwashed masses — that the artist had no such intention. I remember this quite distinctly. Arts advocates and critics were initially incensed with the lewd comparison, bashing those who dared voice it.

It’s not unknown for artists to take advantage of a public commission to rattle a few cages. A piece installed outside Confederation Building was called “Garbage in the Wind” — a clever dig at the goings on inside the legislature.

In this case, however, we were assured the artist’s intentions were pure and sacrosanct. The gaspers and snickerers were despicable cretins.

Wright himself remained coy and evasive throughout the uproar. But his priestly defenders remained stalwart: the citizenry must bow before the beauty of high art. (Not that they had a choice, as it was rammed down their throats each day at work.)

The ironic epilogue — ignored or overlooked by most — is that Wright finally admitted before his death in 1988 that, while the idea did spring from his penchant for carving lines in the sand, the genitalia resemblance was deliberate.

That still doesn’t make it dirty or lewd, of course. Good art has meaning on many levels. But it certainly vindicated the parade of politicians and innocent office workers that saw it every day.

I think Wright deserves the accolades he gets. He earned a special place in the pantheon of local arts pioneers, and I am proud to say one of his limited edition prints dominates our living room wall.

But the “Red Trench” was a single case of the wrong idea for the wrong place at the wrong time. Nothing more.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s

commentary editor. Email: pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Twitter: pjackson_NL

Geographic location: Newfoundland

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Recent comments

  • Hmm
    October 25, 2012 - 11:03

    So, they do not complain about a "Red Trench" at MUN. However, when a group wants to erect something pro-life, pro-family- or pro-God they all get in an uproar. Strange.

  • Petertwo
    October 25, 2012 - 08:29

    Yes, well if it was paid for by the taxpayers then I guess we are all entitled to view it. I am highly unlikely to ever visit so why not publish a photograph so that everyone, rather than a relative few, may view it and decide for themselves ?

    • Pam Frampton
      October 25, 2012 - 08:54

      You can see a picture on Geoff Meeker's blog, right here — http://bit.ly/WwBCpC

  • Geoff Meeker
    October 24, 2012 - 22:55

    I'd love to debate a lot of this but I am working 12 hour days at a location outside the office. Suffice to say I am happy Peter is keeping this subject alive, even if he disagrees with much of what I said. I will revisit this later and challenge Peter on a lot of his sweeping generalizations, lack of citations or sources, and sadly one-sided commentary. :)

  • Margot
    October 24, 2012 - 11:51

    Mr. Baird, in the interest of accuracy and informed debate, the artwork has not been hidden from public view for over a decade. It hangs in the Arts and Administration building of Memorial University in full view of the public, students and the University Executive.

  • Peter Morris
    October 24, 2012 - 10:50

    Thanks for this, Peter. Your readers should know that Red Trench was installed in the early 1990s in what was then the new Arts Building Annex at MUN. The installation caused no contriversy at all at the university or beyond. No surprise, really. The university was the perfect place to exhibit it. In fact, I was disappointed at the time that there were no props directed at MUN for liberating the art from what seemed to be its destiny in permanent storage. At the time, the university also developed a pamphlet to go along with the exhibit (it was placed on the wall adjacent to the installation) that provided context of the piece, including Don Writght's process in developing it.. Its placement is prominent and very public. Hundreds of students, faculty, staff and visitors to MUN see it every day - tens of thousands over the course of the year. They come from all over the province and all around the world. It's placed in a heavy traffic area. And if viewers wanted a closer look, they can take the glass elevator ride to the top floor in the annex which takes passengers the full length of the several stroies high installation. For those interested in seeing it, the Arts and Administration Building is the main MUN building on Elizabeth Avenue (with the flags in front). Just walk through to the back of that building to find the Annex and Red Trench is installed on the wall opposide the glass elevator. in the foyer.

    • Peter Jackson
      October 24, 2012 - 12:36

      Thanks for updating current status. Space was limited in my column. Its resurrection by MUN was a wise, if overdue, move.

  • dee
    October 24, 2012 - 10:23

    Mr Baird, If you think that this does not look like a vagina, you need to go back to health class or check out some u-porn. Everyone else: It is ironic to me the men are the ones commenting (including Mr Bell) on how we women should interpret this art and somehow rise above and not feel uncomfortable. Unfortunately, in our society women are objectified due to our private parts and I, for one, do not feel like having to observe a bloody looking, ragged vagina with a clit*ris smack dab in the middle. Call me uncouth or unappreciative, but the artist admitted to his subtle (or not so subtle) reference. As for the "hysterical secretaries" that was referenced in the article, that just says it all about his attitude towards women in general. Love this article.

    • Frank
      October 24, 2012 - 12:14

      With regards to politicizing the piece in gender terms, I'm not reading anyone here dictating how women should view the piece. You are the one doing that, and you strongly imply women should feel "uncomfortable" with it. So just for the record, that's you clearly dictating on how other "women should interpret this art".

  • John
    October 24, 2012 - 09:11

    Is this the same piece of art that is hanging in the atrium of the Arts Building at MUN? Certainly sounds like it from the description. If so, it was hanging there at least since 2003, that was when I began studying there; not sure if it is still there now.

  • Frank
    October 24, 2012 - 08:18

    Some were offended, others merely uncomfortable, and a few downright juvenile about it. Peter, you exclude the idea from your list that anyone simply appreciated the piece - it's art on a wall, undoubtedly someone had that reaction. It is unlikely (to be polite to you) that the reaction to the piece was unilaterally negative, as you imply. I think in doing so you reveal your bias.

  • James Baird
    October 24, 2012 - 07:40

    Peter The mere fact that you are still talking about a work of art that has been hidden from public view for over a decade would suggest that Don Wright's Red Trench remains a successful work of art. Red Trench is no more genitalia than Magritte's painting Ceci n'est pas une pipe is a pipe. Your claim of vindication for the "innocent office workers" versus the "elitist" Peter Bell is a hollow victory for all it achieved was the removal of the opportunity for each successive generation of innocents to reach their own conclusion and in doing so just maybe learning something about art and themselves.