The Dominion Post
A condom, a virgin plenty of outrage
AN ARTWORK barely bigger than a communion wafer provoked outrage and violence a month after Te Papa opened its doors in 1998.
Virgin in a Condom , a sculpture just 7.5 centimetres high, divided Wellington for a turbulent six weeks, during which time seven people were arrested for violent protests.
Catholic activists saw the artwork as a grave insult to their faith, and applied for a court injunction to have the work removed. A determined few tried more direct methods, with one man kicking the statue in its perspex case to the ground the first day it went on display, while another attacked it with a metal bolt, and a third assaulted a Te Papa worker.
Wellington woman Amanda Sutherland told The Dominion that Te Papa made a mockery of its name by refusing to remove the ‘‘desecrated’’ Virgin.
‘‘How can ‘Our Place’ allow such a sacred image to be blasphemed in this way? Would Te Papa allow a sacrosanct piece of Maoridom to be mocked in such a manner?’’ she said.
Virgin in a Condom formed part of an exhibition of Young British Artists, the ‘‘brat pack’’ of rising talent championed by advertising magnate Charles Saatchi, and whose most famous member was Damien Hirst.
Artist Tania Kovat used her rubbersheathed Madonna to air concerns about the Catholic Church’s treatment of sexuality, contraception and abortion, Te Papa chief executive Cheryll Sotheran said at the time.
Another controversial work in the show was Wrecked , a photographic Last Supper scene with a bare-breasted woman playing Jesus. The artist, Sam Taylor-Wood, is better known today as Sam Taylor-Johnson, director of bondage blockbuster Fifty Shades of Grey .
A band of Catholics protested every Saturday in Te Papa’s lobby or outside its front doors, building to a face-off on March 21 between 200 Christians and the counter-protest group Men Against Religious Hypocrisy (‘‘Mary’’). A truck rolled up outside the museum revealing a live Last Supper tableau with a topless woman playing Jesus. Others held placards reading ‘‘Mary wanted it’’ and ‘‘Praise latex’’.
The next week 80 Catholics sang hymns and prayed while thrash metal band Sadius Fiend drowned them out, with Te Papa’s approval. A group of men dressed as nuns, calling themselves the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, handed out condoms.
The two groups were separated by barricades but a Catholic threw three punches unsuccessfully at the other side.
More arrests ensued, including a singer for obscene language, and a man who spat at a female Catholic protester and made ‘‘satanic hand gestures’’.
Politicians waded in on the debate, with National MP John Banks calling for solicitor-general John McGrath to prosecute Te Papa under a blasphemy section of the Crimes Act. McGrath refused.
Protest group Catholic Action spent $30,000 on full-page newspaper advertisements demanding the Pope sack New Zealand’s 10 bishops for not pushing traditional Catholic teachings. A league of Catholic groups gathered 33,000 signatures by April demanding the show be canned, and Catholic organisations wrote to Cultural Affairs Minister Simon Upton, calling for Te Papa senior staff to be fired.
Kovats pulled out of an appearance on the first episode of TV One’s arts show Backch@t , citing fears of retaliation.
By late March only 3000 people had actually been to see the Pictura Britannica exhibition, some of them oblivious to all the controversy, The Dominion reported.
‘‘One elderly Catholic lady was quite mystified at the fuss – till someone explained that the virgin was not, in fact, encased in gossamer silk.’’
The Evening Post ’s arts critic Mark Amery was also unimpressed by the show, saying Saatchi’s feted artists were too young and green to make art of much depth. The ideas were cheap, therefore the $12 entry fee was pushing it, he said. Virgin in a Condom stood above the rest, however.
‘‘Put Tania Kovat’s Virgin In A Condom in an advertising campaign and it would likely pass the public by with little of the same controversy. That it does stir us up reaffirms the power of the art object and the place of the museum for contemporary art,’’ Amery said.
Te Papa got 40 letters protesting about the statue, plus plenty of anonymous threatening letters and calls, and both The Dominion and The Evening Post were flooded with correspondence.
‘‘The real tragedy of the Madonna in a condom, of course, is that the artist’s father didn’t use one,’’ Wilf Tunney of Nelson wrote.
Te Papa curator Ian Wedde acknowledged Catholics’ dismay but welcomed the debate Virgin provoked.
‘‘Would I accept an image of my own mother encased in a condom? Well, that’s going very much to the heart of the matter because of course the Virgin Mary is a mother to Catholics in a literal sense,’’ he said.
The show closed on April 26, having lost $118,000.
The museum was awarded the inaugural Charles Southwell Award for its stance on the exhibition, an honour awarded by the Association of Rationalists and Humanists and named after New Zealand’s earliest freethinker. The Dominion Post 150 Years of News is available via dompost.co.nz or 0800 50 50 90. Priced at $34.95 + $3 postage and handling or $29.95 + $3 p&h for subscribers.