Friday, August 31, 2012


Chris Jackson, Getting Images Europe
I caught the tale end of the opening of the 2012 Paralympic Games last night and noticed that a large-scale replica of Marc Quinn's Alison Lapper pregnant took centre stage.  In 2007 I wrote an article entitled Doubly Monstrous: Female and Disabled, which was published in Essays in Philosophy& Special Issue on Disability (ed. Michael Goodman), The Department of Philosophy, California: Humboldt State University, Volume 9, No. 1, January, 2008. Since my article focuses primarily upon instances in visual culture in which artists and filmmakers aestheticize women with damaged, missing or anomalous limbs thus valorising their particular embodiment, I thought I'd place an excerpt of my article and observations of Marc Quinn's sculpture below: 

Alison Lapper Pregnant

Peter Greenaway’s emphasis on sexuality and maternity (A Zed and Two Noughts, 1985), and the eroticisation of an otherwise physically incomplete woman is echoed in Marc Quinn’s statue Alison Lapper Pregnant (2005), a depiction of the British artist born with Phocomelia, a congenital malformation in which her hands and feet are attached to abbreviated arms and legs.[i] Whilst this sculpture appears to transgress normative standards attributed to the female nude, because it dares to show a disabled naked woman, it nevertheless conforms to the shape of many sculptures from antiquity that through time or accidental damage are rendered partial. According to Marquard Smith there were a number of reasons why Quinn’s sculptures were exhibited:

Firstly, they are meant to come into dialogue with the earlier neo-classical sculpture already there, thereby working towards modifying traditional models of aesthetic beauty that are premised on conceptions of the intact body. Secondly, in order to do this they draw attention to the fragmented properties of these earlier sculptures that, through either the ravages of time, iconoclasm, or by design have become or were always already fragmentary.[ii]

We can’t help but read a visual resemblance between Lapper’s upper body and that of the Venus de Milo (130-90BCE) and since the sculpture represented the ideal of feminine beauty at that time, we may assume that Quinn intended us to read Lapper’s feminine (pregnant) body as also beautiful. However, if it was just feminine beauty that Quinn was emphasizing then he could have covered her shortened legs with drapery. Instead he represents her abnormal body in antithesis to hegemonic notions of beauty, defined by Aristotle as that which has ‘…order…symmetry and definiteness…’[iii] Obviously Lapper’s limbs do not conform to the usual scale and shape of the classical body, and since we are aware of her bodily differences we cannot, nor should we imagine her with normative limbs. We may consider Lapper’s body perfectly imperfect in its uniqueness, or we may be may drawn instead to the aesthetic of Lapper’s calm gaze and position of her head, which resonate with Arnold Breker’s heroic statues and enable us to project our own idea of heroism onto Lapper’s visage. Indeed Marc Quinn said of his sculpture, which was commissioned for and installed in Trafalgar Square, London in 2005, a place that houses the statue of Lord Nelson: In the past, heroes such as Nelson conquered the outside world. Now it seems to me they conquer their own circumstances and the prejudices of others, and I believe that Alison’s portrait will symbolize this.[iv]
Lapper averts our gaze. Her cool, controlled look exhibits a steely power borne out of life struggles. She refused to wear prosthetic arms and decided to operate in the world without them. According to Quinn people with disabilities have stopped using their prostheses because they feel they are more about conforming with the normal body image society gives them than with making their lives better.[v]
What is interesting for me is that the female body (albeit for a short while) becomes aberrant in the state of pregnancy and depicting Lapper in this condition Quinn is able to draw our attention to minute differences between what we consider normal female bodily changes, alongside bodily shapes considered abnormal. However, since these ‘abnormalities’ are juxtaposed, Lapper’s otherness evokes age-old fears about the woman’s body as site of monstrous births; the mother as primordial abyss, the point of origin and of end [vi], thus relegating her body to that of nature, rather than order or culture.
image: Ron Mueck  Pregnant woman  2002  (detail)  fibreglass, resin, silicone  252.0 x 78.0 x 72.0 cm  Purchased with the assistance of Tony and Carol Berg 2003  National Gallery of Australia, Canberra  © Ron Mueck
We do not have this reaction to Ron Mueck’s flesh-toned sculpture of a Pregnant Woman (2002)[vii], which has a realistic countenance. In fact, compared to Mueck’s sculpture Alison Lapper Pregnant looks unreal and otherworldly. Quinn has literally constructed Lapper as monstrous—gigantic. Standing at 3.55 meters high, the statue is still smaller than the 5 meter high statue of Nelson. However, because it is closer to the ground her body evokes mythological creatures endowed with physical strength and appetite. According to Mikhail Bakhtin, the grotesque corporality of giants ‘… manifests metamorphosis, an ambiguous state of becoming’[viii] . In this sense then Lapper’s body, which transformed during pregnancy is in antithesis to the obvious lack of development in her limbs. However, rather than being ambiguous, Lapper’s pregnant body is imbued with the anxieties, for many, that surround reproduction, pharmaceuticals and the possibility of producing a child with birth defects.
My original article may be downloaded here.

[i] Quinn’s sculpture of Lapper followed his exhibition in 2001 of eight sculptures of amputees held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and which included a life size sculpture of Lapper pregnant.
[ii] Marquard Smith, ‘The Uncertainty of Placing: Prosthetic Bodies, Sculptural Design and Unhomely Dwelling in Marc Quinn, James Gillingham, and Sigmund Freud’, (Accessed 19 October 2007).
[iii] Aristotle, Metaphysica, 7sVBook M
[iv] Marc Quinn, (Accessed 19 October 2007).
[v] Marquard Smith, ‘The Uncertainty of Placing: Prosthetic Bodies, Sculptural Design, and Unhomely Dwelling in Marc Quinn, James Gillingham, and Sigmund Freud’, online at:, Phantom Limb: A neurobiological diagnosis with Aesthetic, Cultural, and Philosophical Implications, Goldsmith College, The University of London.
[vi] Creed. (1993). p17.
[vii] See image at:
[viii] Mikhail Bakhtin. (1984). Radelais and his world, Translated by Helen Iswolsky, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, p26

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