Students from Imperial College London have moved to block the installation of an Antony Gormley sculpture they claim looks like a man with an erect penis.
A motion circulated by the Imperial College Union claims the artwork will "hurt the image and reputation of the college" if installed at its South Kensington campus.
Composed of weathering-steel blocks, the six-metre-high ALERT sculpture (shown above) is meant to resemble a squatting human figure, but the union says the figure's knees are likely to be misconstrued.
The more "obvious" interpretation, it claims, is of a phallus that projects outwards "approximately three metres horizontally".
"Nothing inherently wrong with phallic imagery"
Diagrams accompanying the motion demonstrate the different interpretations.
The union suggests that visualisations prepared by the university deliberately show the rear of the sculpture, to avoid controversy.
"College publicity regarding the statue chose an angle that avoided making the statue appear phallic," it says "This suggests that this interpretation, and backlash, was not unforeseen by some individuals within the college."
Students were not consulted about the sculpture, which is due to be installed in the newly built Dangoor Plaza to attract the interest of passersby.
Statue "balancing on the balls of the feet while squatting"
The motion emphasises that there is "nothing inherently wrong with phallic imagery in art", but that the "phallic interpretation’s preoccupation with the penis could be considered inappropriate for a grand public display, especially given the statue's size".
A key concern is that the phallic interpretation might be seen as "exclusionary", when Imperial College London is already plagued by "issues with gender ratio and exclusion". Official statistics reveal that only 41.8 per cent of full-time students in the 2020-2021 academic year were female.
The work's title is also a sticking point. "The name ALERT could also be understood as referring to the statue's phallus being erect," reads the motion.
Gormley is best known for creating figurative works, many of which depict his own naked body. Past works include Angel of the North in Gateshead and Another Place in Liverpool.
In a statement on the Imperial College website, he said the concept behind ALERT was to "re-assess the relation between body and space".
"Balancing on the balls of the feet while squatting on its haunches and surveying the world around, it the attitude of this sculpture is alive, alert and awake," he said.
Imperial College "grateful to have been gifted" sculpture
The sculpture was donated to the university by alumnus Brahmal Vasudevan, founder and CEO of private equity firm Creador, who said he was proud to bring an "iconic, world class piece of art" to the campus.
When contacted for comment, an Imperial College spokesperson said: "Sir Antony Gormley is one of the world's foremost living artists, and we are grateful to have been gifted one of his iconic sculptures."
The student who submitted the motion told The Art Newspaper that he didn't expect the motion to affect the installation of ALERT, despite wide support from students.
"I think that this is not the sort of thing that the college would pull out of or listen to students about," he said.
This is not the first time that Gormley's artworks have caused upset.
In 2021, his Quartet sculptures were removed from a beach in Suffolk after being likened to sex toys, while in 2017 the artist had to defend his 3x Another Time installation in Norwich after critics said it was insensitive to people affected by suicide.
Previously in London, Gormley created a giant metal sculpture of a person that you can sleep in as part of a hotel, while Carmody Groarke designed his London studio.
The image is courtesy of Imperial College Union.