The very first memorial for feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft in London is causing a ruckus. For good reason.
Commissioned by the ten-year-long Mary on the Green campaign to the sweet tune of £143,300, British artist Maggi Hambling's statue does not depict Wollstonecraft herself; instead, a hot, svelte lady emerging from an organic-looking wave of silvered bronze. The words "For Mary Wollstonecraft 1759-1797" are carved into the granite base as well as a famous Wollstonecraft quote: "I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves."
In a statement to New York, Mary on the Green breathlessly calls this figure an “Everywoman, her own person, ready to confront the world…a combination of female forms which commingle and rise together as if one.”
While I think protesters covering up the nude figure is a step too far, there are two threads here that are important for us to single out when we talk about or look at this statue. They are related to each other, but not the same thing. The first is—yes, this statue is extremely cheesy. Comically so. As Jerry Saltz calls it, "bad kitsch feminism," which misses the mark a little bit, but conveys the sentiment.
Embodying Wollstonecraft's legacy with a (seriously) tiny idealized naked lady emerging from glittery, primordial jizz is about as girl boss feminism as you can get. And it isn't the compliment that Hambling thinks it is. If anything, Hambling confines Wollstonecraft's work to the type of body depicted—presumably white, cis, thin—instead of the breadth of people of all genders and backgrounds who are inspired by her words (myself included). This memorial is pretty but obvious and disappointing.
The second thread is that while this is not a successful memorial to Wollstonecraft, it is a successful public art piece. Often a lot of public art gets slurped up into the gray cityscape or nestled behind bushes. Rarely do we get tits or peen or bare bums. But this wave of silvered bronze and the tiny little human on top is the sort of misguided, weirdo shit I crave to encounter on long city walks.
Even those unfamiliar with Wollstonecraft will, undoubtedly, mull on this memorial after encountering it in a park, long after Twitter succumbs. What the hell did I just see? Who the hell is Mary Wollstonecraft? What is that silver wave? And why is a character from Alien being remembered in this little gray section of London?
If anything, I bet random passerby will be more prone to look into Wollstonecraft after seeing this shiny bit of kitsch art. Sure, Wollstonecraft should get a more "proper" memorial statue, but I think Hambling's statue should serve as a memorial to bad artistic impulses. Because the greatest public memorial—of Wollstonecraft or any other influential woman—is the self.