Saturday, March 01, 2008

Interacting with Statues

I notice tourists a lot, as there's obviously a fair number about in London, and I do find it quite interesting to watch how people interact with statues. It often seems to be in a way probably not anticipated by the original artists.

I go past Trafalgar Square on the bus regularly, and regardless of the weather, there are generally people clambering onto the huge bronze lions surrounding Nelson's Column (like this one, though not my pic). Sometimes it's for a photo sitting on the lion's back, or they sit between the giant paws to eat their lunch, or just stroke the bronze mane.

I wonder if Landseer, an artist known for his animal paintings, who was commissioned to produce the lions in the mid-19th century, ever imagined how people would interact with them years ahead in the future. Maybe the prospect of climbing onto public monuments would have been seen as horribly disrespectful for the Victorians, and not very practical with their clothes either.

I was also wondering how far back in time people started posing with the lions or climbing onto them. If you delved into photographic archives and looked through personal photo albums, maybe you'd uncover a history of London tourism and popular photography, illustrated through generations of people posing with the lions and going back decades.

I saw a statue in some white-ish stone (marble?) at a stately home a few years ago that showed how people interacted with statues in a way that was presumably considered 'wrong'. It was a classical figure of a partially naked woman, draped in (sculpted) diaphanous fabric, almost life-size. It must have been positioned somewhere previously that made one of her breasts particularly enticing for passing visitors to touch as they walked past, as one was worn and rather grimy with years of hand-prints, while the other was as pristine as the rest of the statue. When we saw it, it had been moved out of arm's reach to beyond a rope barrier, but the traces of people's constant touching hadn't been cleaned off yet.

It's the same with other statues in museums, where the tactile nature of the sculpture and the location of the piece seems to invite people to touch it over a long period of time, shown by grubby marks and worn sections on some parts of the statue, but not others. I'm sure all contemporary artists think about how their work will be viewed by others, including being handled, and whether or not they want 'Do Not Touch' notices and barriers surrounding their work. I find the possibly unintentional interaction with sculptures rather more interesting, particularly when it's frequently by a non-gallery going public.