An Icon of Justice - Or Something Else? A New Medusa in a NYC Park

Artwork(s) In Focus, Art News, Socially Engaged Art

October 15, 2020

Numerous artworks produced throughout the centuries were inspired by Greek mythology, and some protagonists of the ancient myths are still very much popular among artists as they symbolically represent different social phenomena. One of the finest examples is Medusa, a snake-haired creature who stones any person careless enough to look into her eyes.

The myth centers on that her transformation from a beautiful maiden to a monster took place at the temple of the goddess Athena, who cursed Medusa after she was raped by Poseidon. The same envelopes further in one of the finest antiquity scripts, Metamorphosis by Ovid, after which Medusa was hunted and beheaded by the hero Perseus who featured her head as a trophy on his shield.

Although this particular myth was very popular during Classical antiquity, revived during the Renaissance period, and remained popular until the early 19th century, it has been represented similarly without any particular intervention while perpetuating the everlasting commonplace values (such as good and evil, crime and justice) inherited from the ancient times.

Now, during the 1970s while exploring the historical canons the feminist movement encountered myths that were interpreted differently and embraced symbolically as forms of women’s struggle (e.g. the Arachne myth), so it is not surprising that the Medusa myth came into feminist consideration. The story of a woman who was blamed, punished, shamed, cast away as a monster for the violence she was exposed to now comes into the spotlight once again after the sculpture titled Medusa With The Head of Perseus by artist Luciano Garbati was erected in Collect Pond Park in New York City.

Shortly after it was installed, this seven-foot bronze sculpture portraying the mythic creature as a full figure of an empowered Medusa holding the head of Perseus in her right hand sparked quite a controversy as it was produced by a male artist amid the current #MeToo movement and a general debate regarding gender issues in America, but also worldwide.

Luciano Garbati - Medusa With The Head of Perseus, 2008-2020. Installed at Collect Pond Park. Courtesy of MWTH Project.. Installed at Collect Pond Park. Courtesy of MWTH Project.

The Story Behind the Luciano Garbati Medusa in New York City

Namely, Luciano Garbati is an Argentinian-Italian sculptor devoted to the articulation of the great tradition of Italian art from the antiquity to Mannerism. By appropriating the figurative traditions and translating them in regards to contemporaneity, he creates versatile artworks that transcend the mythological and religious while moving closer to body politics. Aside from several of his notable exhibitions, Garbati came to prominence after producing a marble bust for the mausoleum of the late Argentinian President Raúl R. Alfonsin in 2009 as well as a bronze of the same leader in 2011.

Interestingly so, Garbati made the Medusa statue in his studio in 2008 practically as a reaction to Benvenuto Cellini’s outstanding 16th-century bronze Perseus with the Head of Medusa. For unknown reasons, the same was exposed by the sculptor ten years later when he posted a photograph of the work on social media that instantly became a hit.

New York-based photographer Bek Andersen saw this image online, felt dazzled by the work, and contacted Garbati to bring the sculpture to New York, where it was installed the same year at 263 Bowery gallery. Then the two artists conceived a proposal for NYC Parks’s Art in the Parks program, which has managed to successfully release more than two thousand works of outdoor public art across the city.

Medusa With The Head of Perseus was granted and cast in bronze by Vanessa Solomon of Carbon Sculpt Studios and Laran Bronze Foundry. Alongside, Andersen founded the art collective called MWTH (Medusa With The Head, pronounced “myth”) to support artists to question classical narratives and the way they are being interpreted through contemporary sculpture.

Left: Benvenuto Cellini - Perseus holding the head of Medusa, 1545–1554. Image creative commons / Right: Luciano Garbati - Medusa With The Head of Perseus, 2008-2020. Installed at Collect Pond Park. Courtesy of MWTH Project

The Artist’s Agenda and The Initial Response

The artist himself stated that the work was a genuine reaction to the rhetoric of victim-shaming that spans through centuries into the present-day #MeToo movement. Shortly after, as mentioned, Garbati posted a photograph of the sculpture on line and the Medusa became a symbol of resistance embraced by thousands of women willing to step out and share their experiences.

The most important feature of the work is the fact Medusa was presented in full figure for the first time. Willing to depict the woman behind the myth, Garbati decided to represent her as an autonomous figure ready to fight for her position in a male-dominated society and pose the question of how a triumph can be possible if you are defeating a victim.

Now that the sculpture is installed across the New York County Criminal Court, the institution where high profile abuse cases including the recent Harvey Weinstein trial took place, Garbati’s Medusa reached the status of an icon of justice and the power of women’s emancipation.

Luciano Garbati - Medusa With The Head of Perseus, 2008-2020. Installed at Collect Pond Park. Courtesy of MWTH Project.

The Criticism Surrounding Luciano Garbati Medusa

Nevertheless, the work also faced serious criticism since various people found that an idealized, naked body of a white woman made by a male artist does not respond to the current debates and actions performed by the #MeToo movement, nor does it represent women’s genital accordingly while maintaining the male heteronormative fantasies.

The agenda of the whole project is even more questionable as its online presentation offers miniatures of the sculpture, as well as a souvenir t-shirt or muscle tank, despite the fact that ten percent of sales from the proceeds of soled miniatures are donated to the National Women’s Law Center.

Also, the decision to present the Medusa figuratively is not novel at all, and stylistically and formally speaking Garbati’s work is retrograde; although figuration unmistakably responds to people, a more comprehensive and conceptually more rounded approach would be far more fitting.

Some may ask why the male artist criticizing sexual violence against women is wrong, and the answer is simple - the dissemination of gender issues is only possible with appropriate articulation not in any way driven by market-driven interest.

If we are to reject the mentioned arguments and embrace the notion that the sculpture is indeed a feminist symbol of equality and justice, only one presumption remains - if the artist was actually interested in presenting a black woman, third gender, or non-binary figure the whole debate would gravitate to the current tendency of inclusivity attached to the feminist struggle that no longer tends to focus solely on biological women, but also trans women, and all the others considerate of femininity. Building a socio-politically sculpture in public space bears responsibility as it should evoke a corpus of ideas rooted in solidarity, collectivity, and re-distribution of commons, certainly not an idealized image of an ancient myth that becomes a viral sensation and profitable merchandise.

Medusa With The Head of Perseus will be on view at Collect Pond Park, located on Centre St, Lower Manhattan, New York, from 14 October 2020 until 30 April 2021.

Featured image: Luciano Garbati - Medusa With The Head of Perseus, 2008-2020. Installed at Collect Pond Park. Courtesy of MWTH Project.