7 Controversial Modern Statues
By Jake Rossen
A 26-foot-tall Marilyn Monroe statue dubbed Forever Marilyn and recently re-installed in Palm Springs, California, after a seven-year hiatus was intended to celebrate the actress’s iconic status. But her pose—pushing down on her billowing dress and allowing observers to peer at her underwear—has cast doubts on how long she’ll be standing. (Her rear end faces the entrance of the Palm Springs Art Museum.)
Divisive opinions about art have never failed to generate controversy, and sculptures are no exception. Take a look at a few others that know what Marilyn is going through.
1. Marine Venus // Halifax, Nova Scotia
The campus of Dalhousie University is home to Marine Venus, a sculpture that practically begs to be ridiculed. The indescribable art is the work of Robert Hedrick and debuted at Dalhousie in 1969. Part of the mystery may be in its lack of context. Marine Venus was intended to be mounted in a reflecting pool, but that proved cost-prohibitive. What Hedrick meant to communicate may never be fully understood, though perhaps a nautical theme is needed. Peter Dykhuis, the school's Art Gallery director, once speculated that it “looks like a big barnacle.”
2. The Collective // Appleton, Wisconsin
Some sculptures invite debate over their meaning or what they represent. Some experience public dissent for being perceived as unattractive. That’s the case for The Collective, a sculpture by artist Paul Bobrowitz that stands in public view in Appleton and has been labeled by some as too horrific-looking to tolerate. The piece is in the shape of a giant head and was formed by using propane tanks sculpted as individual faces, which represent what Bobrowitz intended to be the collective consciousness of the world at large.
There was certainly collective consensus in the neighborhood: Complaints began within 15 minutes of the sculpture being installed. Movements to persuade the nonprofit arts group Sculpture Valley to remove it were not successful. It will remain up through the end of 2021 as originally planned before being made available for purchase. The asking price: $20,000.
3. Coup de Tête (Headbutt) // Doha, Qatar
Statues erected to celebrate sports heroes aren't so unusual, but one sculpted to celebrate a foul is another story. In 2012, artist Adel Abdessemed unveiled Coup de Tête, or The Headbutt, a 16-foot bronze statue of French football star Zinedine Zidane headbutting rival Italian player Marco Materazzi during the 2006 World Cup. Public reaction was swift, with some decrying it as idolatry and others asserting it was promoting violence. (The foul led to Zidane being ejected from the game.) Supporters believed it was celebrating athletic failure, an ingenious inversion of the sports glory normally seen in art. It was removed from public view in Doha and moved to the Arab Museum of Modern Art before being installed at the Pompidou Museum in Paris.
4. Rocky Balboa // Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
Few stationary sculptures have the mileage of Rocky Balboa. The imposing 8-foot, 6-inch statue of the fictional boxer made famous by Sylvester Stallone was originally commissioned for 1982’s Rocky III and sculpted by artist A. Thomas Schomberg before Stallone decided to donate it to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Rocky fans know the Museum as the spot where Rocky jogs up its steps in several of the movies.) It was originally installed at the top, inviting debate over whether the movie prop could be construed as art; others took offense that screen hero Balboa was being celebrated while actual hometown boxers like Smokin’ Joe Frazier weren’t. The Philadelphia Art Commission opted to move it to outside the Spectrum Sports Arena, where the controversy died down before it was briefly relocated back to the museum for shooting on 1990’s Rocky V. In the end, fans won out. The statue was moved adjacent to the museum in 2006; Frazier, meanwhile, got his deserved statue in 2015 in South Philadelphia’s stadium district.
5. Nefertiti // Samalut, Egypt
The Nefertiti bust first discovered in 1912 by German archaeologists has been a source of great contention. Believed to have been completed in 1340 BCE, the likeness of Egypt’s most well-known resident has been the property of the German government despite Egypt’s continued efforts to claim it as their own on the basis Germans had smuggled it out of Egypt illegally. In 2015, Egypt debuted a doppelganger of sorts—a giant bust in Samalut that greeted drivers on the Egypt-Aswan highway. Critics decreed it an “insult” to Nefertiti and art in general and compared the likeness to Frankenstein’s monster. It was removed within weeks. Salamut’s mayor, Jamal Qinnawi, seemed to agree with the backlash, dubbing the bust “ill-looking.”
6. Pope John Paul II // Rome, Italy
Artist Oliviero Rainaldi thought he was on to something with his modernist sculpture of Pope John Paul II, which was installed in Rome’s Termini train station in 2011. But observers quickly complained that the 16-foot-tall Pope looked more like Winston Churchill, or worse, like Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Even the Vatican expressed disappointment, calling the head “too roundish.” In 2012, a reworked version of the statue appeared, with Rainaldi asserting that assembly workers had botched his original intentions the first time around.
7. Robocop // Detroit, Michigan, United States
The authoritarian satire Robocop (1987) has become a cult classic, with Peter Weller’s portrayal of the bionic law enforcement officer the zenith of 1980s action. But plans to introduce an 11-foot statue in the character’s honor have met with controversy. The statue was initially crowdfunded on Kickstarter back in 2011 by Detroit natives Brandon Walley and Jerry Paffendorf. After it reached $50,000 in donations—including a generous donation by Omni Consumer Products, a pop culture merchandise licensee that shares the name of the dystopian company in the movie—some Detroit residents expressed concern money was being allocated for a fictional character’s sculpture when the city was experiencing social problems like unemployment. (It eventually netted $67,000 in funding.)
Robocop experienced extended production delays before finally being finished in 2021. But the Michigan Science Center walked back its commitment to host the statue owing to pandemic budgetary concerns, leaving supporters scrambling to find it a new home. One possible candidate—Stevens Point, Wisconsin, Weller’s hometown.