Glasgow’s Festival Park artwork opened the wrong conversation

ART’S purpose is multi-faceted and the responses works provoke are limitless – joy and fear, revulsion and pleasure and on and on.

Controversy and art are contented bedfellows. What artist wants their creation to be met with gentle murmurs of acceptance or universal agreement? Very few and those who do are in the wrong job.

So I’m sure a heated discussion would have been an expected and not unwelcome response to a new artwork that appeared on the gates of a Glasgow park.

The steel creation, called “Assumption – to be in context or not be in context, that is the question” was designed to prompt discussion.

What it provoked instead was near-universal condemnation as a thousand female jaws dropped and a thousand more female voices roared dissent.

The work, which appeared earlier this month in Festival Park in Cessnock, depicts a pair of crudely drawn aluminium legs wearing a pair of red high heels. So far, so passée. Where we become truly agog is that each leg is affixed either side of a pair of gates so that they part when the gates are opened.

To enter the park, one walks through the split at the top of the spread legs. An outcry led to the installation rapidly being un-installed from the gates by Glasgow City Council.

It turned out the commissioning arts organisation hadn’t asked permission before attaching the legs and so down they came.

Coincidentally, I’ve written a few news stories recently about the local authority removing items placed in public spaces without permission. A fridge being used as a community pantry was one; a poster publicising a cycling petition was another. I imagine the legs now held in the same Depot For Confiscated Things, propped on the side of the pantry.

Now that’s an art exhibition I would go and see.

Icelandic-Irish artist Rakel McMahon was asked on social media if she was aware that an 18-year-old girl had allegedly been raped earlier this year in the park.

Yes, she responded, she had. “Parks and green areas in a city are in general not safe place for women, specially after dark,” she added.

Indeed. So why create an artwork in the image of a faceless woman’s legs, removing her power to open and close them?

Ms McMahon said in the same post she is working on a “project that comments on sexual harassment in parks and public space”.

How do we know, she said, that these legs are women’s legs, merely because they wear high heels – can’t high heels be for everyone?

“I feel the work touches upon the discourse on victim blaming in sexual harassment,” she said, “As well as giving the park area a feminine vibe that these green areas need.”

If this is an attempt to dial down the clear misogyny in the artwork then it’s an instant fail.

What a contradiction: she’s saying that we shouldn’t assign clothing based on gender stereotypes… but also that the legs are feminine. Which is it?

And what on earth has a feminine vibe got to do with a park? Are grass and trees currently too manly? Would pink flowerbeds solve sexual harassment in public spaces?

Some of us don’t want to have our assumptions challenged on a trip to the park, we just want to sit on the grass or have a peaceful stroll.

The work was commissioned by collective Ltd Ink Corporation as part of an art trail around the community called Safari of Sorts, a clanger within a clanger. Govan and Cessnock are two of the more socio-economically challenged areas of Glasgow. A safari encourages tourists to come and gawk at the animals, but from a safe distance.

I’d love to know more about the rationale behind all this but, unfortunately, Ltd Ink Corporation didn’t respond to my request for comment. Its website says it can “take more risks and have greater control” with art due to being “privately funded”.

Might I suggest it relinquishes some of that control to consulting women before it takes a risk on misogynistic public art? Or at least responds to them when they want to engage in a dialogue they’ve chosen to spark.

Ms McMahon also said in her Instagram posts that parks in a city are not a safe place for women, especially after dark.

She’s right, and how to challenge and change that is a valuable conversation to be having. Displaying legs akimbo, to be penetrated at will by anyone and everyone, isn’t a useful addition to the dialogue.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992