The return of the giant genitalia

Peter Jackson pjackson@thetelegram.com
Published on October 24, 2012

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