Collect Pond Park in downtown New York is an in-between place, stuck in between a few places no one wants to go. It’s a sliver of green surrounded by concrete that is bordered by various courthouses. Most of the people who walk through work nearby, and they tend to cut through quickly. But the addition of a new sculpture, plopped directly across from Manhattan Criminal Court last week, has changed that. In the middle of park benches, in front of some overgrown shrubbery, Medusa With the Head of Perseus stands on a small pedestal.
The 7-foot-tall bronze piece by Luciano Garbati depicts the Greek myth as a revenge fantasy. Like a still from a Quentin Tarantino film, Garbati’s sculpture exudes both a severe ferocity and come-hither sex appeal. Medusa is lithe, toned, and naked. Her eyes look down on the viewer, and with a man’s head dangling from one hand with a sword in another, she seems to be challenging, “You next.”
In the U.K., another significant Medusa sculpture has been unveiled at the same time. The British sculptor Susie MacMurray’s “Medusa,” showing at the Pangolin Gallery in London, features a handmade copper chainmail dress fitted all the way down, before devolving into a serpentine fringed bottom. The piece took eight months to make, and she was assisted by a group of art students.
“I wanted her to be Amazonian in presence,” MacMurray told The Daily Beast of her Medusa. “I didn’t want her to be the idealized Barbie playing to the problematic gaze. She’s so strong, the male gaze gets reflected back… I wanted her to be voluptuous. It’s quite important to me that she wasn’t a size zero. She’s a size 16. I think she’s quite noble.”
Though the Argentine-Italian Garbati completed his artwork in 2008, it went viral 10 years later after #MeToo galvanized women from all industries to call for greater attention to issues of workplace misconduct and sexual violence.
Last week, it was unveiled outside of the courthouse that hosted Harvey Weinstein’s rape trial earlier this year, at which the disgraced producer was sentenced to 23 years in prison. Garbati told The New York Times that “thousands of women” had written to him about the piece, calling it “cathartic.”
As Ovid wrote, Medusa was a young and beautiful woman whom Poseidon raped inside of Athena’s temple. She was a victim, but Athena punished her anyway, turning her into a monster with serpents for hair. Anyone who looked at her was promptly turned to stone. Perseus, considered a Greek hero, beheaded Medusa. That solidified her mystique as both a feminist martyr and cautionary tale of what happens in a patriarchy when women wield their sexuality too boldly.
The classical Italian goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini captured this scene in Perseus with the head of Medusa, a bronze sculpture from 1554. With his iteration, Garbati wanted to give Medusa her payback.
Her presence is commanding; even on a recent, cloudy late Monday afternoon, nearly all who walked by stopped to stare. Their interactions with Medusa served as a kind of meta-commentary on consent.
One man selling masks put down his cart, approached the statue, whipped out his phone, zoomed in on her bronze labia, and snapped a photo. Someone had put a bouquet of flowers at her feet; a passerby removed them.
Two female friends lingered in front of the piece. One of them explained the sculpture’s controversy, in so many words. “Some people are mad at this, because of...” the woman whispered, while gesturing wearily in the direction of Medusa’s hairless crotch.
Though Medusa cuts a striking figure in Collect Pond Park (her home until next April) criticisms of the artwork were inevitable. Some took issue with the fact that this visual ode to feminism was completed by a man. Others mocked her pin-up proportions and perky breasts, which are spry to the point of gravity-defying.
In a Zoom interview from his Manhattan hotel room, Garbati shrugged off critiques.
“It’s not like I made the sculpture saying, ‘I’m here and I will make a monument to #MeToo,” he told The Daily Beast. “The sculpture was made in 2008. When people reacted to it in 2018, no one knew who was behind the sculpture, so what is the point [of caring that a man made it]? Even if you would prefer a woman to have done the sculpture, if we are going to change things, that’s we. We, all together. We men, we need to change our way of thinking, too. It’s important that we do that, otherwise it is impossible to change things with just half of the population.”
His Medusa looks the way she does because that’s how his icons, Cellini and Carravagio, rendered her. “I’m always referring to the classics,” when it comes to proportions, Garbati said. “That’s a formal decision. Yeah, maybe 12 years later in retrospect, I could say, ‘I could have done things [differently]. I’m working with what they worked with at the time. The idea is quite problematic, maybe. But that’s what it is.”
Garbati does not describe Medusa as the prototype for female rage. “People say that, but I don’t think so,” he said. “She had to defend herself, so she’s tense, like a victim—a victim who could prevail on the aggressor. That’s the boundary she’s setting—you come for me, I will defend myself.”
But if she is interpreted as a monument to vigilantism, why put her outside a courthouse? “The sculpture refers to a myth,” Garbati explained. “So that’s a metaphor, always. You look at the image and you think about justice. You don’t think, ‘I will do this violently.’”
Tarana J. Burke, the activist who started the #MeToo movement, posted a photo of the sculpture on Instagram, with a big red X crossing it out. “This Movement is not about retribution or revenge and it’s certainly not about violence,” Burke wrote in her caption. “It is about HEALING and ACTION. . .This statue doubles down on the idea that this Movement is about hunting down men. It also ties our healing to revenge and casts the semblance of justice that comes from the judicial system as retribution as opposed to accountability.”
Even with her detractors, Medusa has become iconographic in the #MeToo era. Garbati thinks that her spirit is “in the air.” Damien Hirst did his take with a 2013 gold sculpture showing her severed head being engulfed by hissing snakes. The Met exhibited classical pieces depicting Medusa back in in 2018, charting her cultural transformation “from grotesque to beautiful.”
Gianni Versace chose a rendering of Medusa’s head for his brand’s logo; decades later, it is still the emblem. The Italian designer also blazoned the gates of his Miami villa with her face; he thought it projected a sultry power, not unlike the supermodels he dressed.
As Elizabeth Johnson noted in her viral 2016 essay, “The Original ‘Nasty Woman,’” some cultural depictions of Medusa have stripped the monster of her sex appeal, misogynistically casting her instead as a shrew. “For centuries, Medusa has been used to criticize powerful women,” Johnson wrote. “Have a few minutes? Do a Google Image search: Type in a famous woman’s name and the word Medusa.” She rattled off names of women who got the Gorgon treatment: Hillary Clinton, Madonna, Oprah, Nancy Pelosi.
Susie MacMurray also used Medusa as a muse for a garment sculpture she made that is currently featured in her solo exhibition Murmur at the Pangolin Gallery. The exhibit opened last week, around the same time as Garbati’s unveiling in New York. She learned about his Medusa the morning of an interview with the BBC Radio 4 show, Woman’s Hour.
“I don’t remember the first time I heard the story of Medusa,” MacMurray told The Daily Beast. “She’s sort of embedded in culture, like Grimms’ Fairy Tales.”
MacMurray has made a series of garment sculptures, which she calls “almost self-portraits.” It began after her husband died in 2009, and she made a piece called “Widow.” From far away, it looks like a feathered gown with a long train; look closer and it’s made up of almost 10,000 silver dressmaker’s pins. She’s made several other similar, tactile pieces of art.
In 2014 came “Medusa.” MacMurray acknowledged the pop-feminist inclination to turn Medusa into some sort of vengeful girlboss out to ruin the men who hurt her. But she wants her triumph to be about more than mere retaliation.
“By giving Medusa that kind of furious revenge, doing exactly to them what they’ve done to her, aren’t you turning her into a victim again?” MacMurray asked. “You’re not allowing her any possibility of change, or for her to rise above it. Why does the only possibility of power be for someone to destroy someone else? That’s not a particularly good narrative, and it’s not justice. If we all revenge ourselves on each other forever more, there is no possibility of ever evolving.”
Catharsis is great for a moment, MacMurray thinks, but “then you have to go on from there.” She called Garbati’s art “beautiful,” but finds its placement opposite a courthouse problematic. “Courts are a place for justice, and hopefully not a place that speaks about revenge,” she said.
MacMurray related #MeToo and its ensuing fallout to her memories of growing up during the women’s lib movement. “I was a teenager in the 1970s,” she said. “We got this cycle of empowerment and then we got a backlash. ‘Oh, those bra-burning feminists.’ That led to a period of time where a lot of women were slightly reticent to say they were feminists. You don’t want a perpetual cycle of being turned into a monster again and again.”
MacMurray’s sculpture is flexible, and the artist says that people always want to reach out and grab it. “You’re not supposed to touch sculpture, much like you’re not supposed to touch bodies unasked,” she said. “That’s always a problem with my work, all the time. People want to touch it. And I want them to want to.”
While working on her piece, MacMurray read the seminal 1976 essay “The Laugh of Medusa” by French feminist Hélène Cixous for inspiration. In it, Cixous encourages women to practice self-expression and liberation through writing.
“One of the metaphors she uses is that Medusa is not screaming in horror in Caravaggio’s painting of her, but she’s actually laughing,” MacMurray said. “She’s reveling in her power, not being destroyed. I find that really quite striking.”