England, debate over presence of four Gormley sculptures. "They look like sex toys."

A small village of 2,000 on the English coast has taken center stage in contemporary art: there is discussion about four Gormley sculptures on the beach, which could become permanent. But some disagree: "they look like sex toys."

A quiet seaside village inEast Suffolk, England, has gained an unusual reputation these days: in Aldeburgh (this is the name of the village, population two thousand, about a hundred kilometers east of London), in fact, discussions are going on about the placement of four sculptures by Antony Gormley (London, 1950), one of the leading contemporary British artists. The installation, called Quartet (sleeping), is a 2001 work consisting of four sinuously shaped bronze sculptures that are not easy to interpret: according to the official description, they date back to a period when the artist developed “cloud-like” forms that “express the inner self.”

Aldeburgh residents, however, think differently: some have likened them to sex toys, drawing out similarities to dildos, vibrators and butt plugs (“they wouldn’t look out of place in an Ann Summers store,” they wrote on social media, referring to the popular British chain of lingerie and sex toy stores), while others think they are more like dog or rabbit droppings, depending on the shape. Similarities aside, Gormley’s works were installed on Aldeburgh Beach in August by its owner, collector Caroline Wiseman, in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the founding of Aldeburgh Beach Lookout, an exhibition space where exhibitions by leading British artists have been held since 2010: the works, however, became the subject of strong discussion because Wiseman would like to make the installation permanent, and he submitted a request for permission to have the works remain on the town’s sand.

Wiseman had no idea that a permit was needed to leave the works there: it was his request, and the subsequent preliminary opinion of East Suffolk Council, that sparked the debate. The council has so far taken a positive view: it acknowledges the good faith of the collector (who had not applied for permits in August because she did not know they were needed), as well as the value of the work, the fact that the works do not cause a significant impact on the appearance of the Aldeburgh Beach conservation area, and that the installation follows all guidelines imposed by conservation laws. “Consequently,” the East Suffolk Council memo concludes, “permission should be given.”

Now Wiseman is therefore confident of obtaining permission to leave Gormley’s statues on the beach. As for criticism, he told the BBC that “for people the best thing to do would be to come and see them, come to the beach so they can get an idea of what they are. If they think they look like sex toys, it’s because they have a very vivid imagination.” The works, according to the collector, “are appropriate for their environment, their colors are similar to those of the sand. To me they look more like sleeping seals. They are also very heavy and not of great economic value, so I don’t think anyone will take them away. Aldeburgh is one of the most acculturated coastal towns in Britain, and this is an ideal place for sculptures. Everyone here loves them.” Indeed, there are even those among Aldeburgh residents who look favorably on the initiative, believing that they add value to the beach and the town, and can attract visitors year-round. However, the mayor of Aldeburgh gave no advance notice, letting it be known only that the town council will decide what to do.

Pictured: Antony Gormley’s Quartet on Aldeburgh beach.

England, debate over presence of four Gormley sculptures.
England, debate over presence of four Gormley sculptures. "They look like sex toys."

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