Trafalgar Square, London: it was 2005 when a 15-ton statue of white marble from Pietrasanta, almost four metres tall, made its way in between the fountains and Admiral Nelson’s pigeons. And although this space in the square has received a work of contemporary art in rotation since 1998, this time a scandal broke out. For the statue Alison Lapper Pregnant by the English artist Marc Quinn portrays a particularly disturbing woman: the eight-and-a-half-months pregnant nude model is in fact phocomelic. What is disturbing is not the pregnancy shown in its full explosion and perhaps not even her disability in itself (the Admiral close by, firmly on his column, has an arm missing), as much as the view of a woman with a serious physical disability who is proudly becoming a mother.
If Quinn has disturbed the public with his art for years (in 1991 he presented a sculpture of his head made with his own deep-frozen blood), there is also an intention to disturb on the part of Alison Lapper, a model with no arms and with very short legs, obviously not independent, who spent hours and hours motionless, able only to drink, smeared in vaseline and coated in plaster. Indeed the young woman herself is an artist who has chosen to express herself and her poetry in clear, modern and non-conventional forms.
It was in 1965 when the “baby girl with flippers” was born in Burton upon Trent, Staffordshire: she looked like a Thalodomide victim but in fact the newborn Alison had phocomelia, a serious congenital malformation which prevents the limbs from developing normally. Rejected by her parents (over the years her attempts at becoming closer to them all ended badly), she grew up – among various forms of abuse – in institutes for people with disabilities which she left as soon as she could, moving to London when she was just 18 years old. Here, with great determination she succeeded in living and in earning her own keep.
She married but shortly afterwards – reacting to the cruelties of a normal-bodied husband – she asked for and obtained a divorce. This young woman who finds in art the courage to face humiliations and obstacles is strong. She was not satisfied with the undeniable talent that she had, but studied: first, at the age of 19, she obtained a diploma at the Heatherley School of Art; then, when she was 26, she qualified at the University of Brighton.
Alison’s race is unstoppable. Having refused artificial limbs which make her feel truly disabled, she works with her mouth – as a teenager she was invited to be a member of the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists Association, of which she is still a very active member today. And so, over the years, Lapper has exhibited not only in English galleries and in individual and collective exhibitions; she teaches art to people with disabilities; she gives interviews and writes (her autobiography My Life in My Hands was published in 2005). In any case she gets herself talked about.
In 1999, when after numerous miscarriages she no longer had any hope of having a child, she became pregnant, single and with disabilities: “The sentence had been pronounced”, Lapper recounted in the Trafalgar days, “I should not have become a mother. And then, if I had to show myself, let it be nude, pregnant and proud”. There was no room for doubts, fears or worries (at least in public). The pregnancy went ahead, and the birth too.
Challenging the five per cent probability of inheriting his mother’s malformation, Parys – at the centre, with another 25 children of the new millennium, of the BBC project Child of Our Time – inherited instead her deep blue eyes. Another statue by Quinn, Alison Lapper and Parys (2000), immortalizes them head on: the child, in the explosion of his infancy, sits round and chubby in the lap of his mother whose face is now serene, with the hint of a smile, placid and proud.
The art of Alison Lapper – who works with discipline in her studio until five o’clock each day – is multifaceted. It is structured in photographs, installations, pictures and digital images: not only are the colours bright and flashing, but even the alternations of white and black communicate colour, force and life. If her muse is the Venus of Milo – in whose combination of beauty and absence, asymmetry and perfection, the woman Lapper is reflected like an echo – the artist Lapper investigates reality starting from herself, and from the way in which the world perceives her. In a continuous play between normality and deformity, between determination and irony, Alison (either as the subject of the photograph or as the eye of the painter) is at the centre of her works, never taken for granted and never excessive.
Passing through Trafalgar Square it was impossible not to see Lapper’s statue for the two years in which she remained there triumphantly in the heart of London. Today it is impossible not to see how that subject of art continues to release energy when she makes herself the producer of art. She is a classic figure; her own body (sometimes nude, sometimes profanely over-bedecked) and her own gallery of works.
St. Peter’s Square
June 26, 2019
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