Vir­gin in a con­dom

A statue just 7.5cm high played God against the devil and made some Ki­wis ques­tion if our na­tional mu­seum be­longs to us all. Tom Hunt re­ports.

The Dominion Post - - Flashback -

‘Art’’ was his name, and he was a com­mando with a ha­tred of art – this art at least. His com­man­der was none other than the Vir­gin Mary and his army a 200-per­son vigil of prayer.

Rolling to­wards them in cen­tral Welling­ton was a truck, the num­bers 666 and comic char­ac­ter Hot Stuff The Lit­tle Devil painted on its front.

In the back – about to be un­veiled to God’s army – was a re-en­act­ment of Jesus’ Last Sup­per. Play­ing the role of Jesus was a top­less Heidi Bor­chadt.

As the doors opened, most in the vigil paid it lit­tle mind, though some had to res­train their chil­dren.

Vigil par­tic­i­pant An­thony Ste­fanou raced af­ter the truck as it pulled away. ‘‘Why don’t you ar­rest these peo­ple?’’ he yelled. ‘‘It’s dis­grace­ful. They [po­lice] should have ar­rested the driver straight away.’’

The dra­matic scenes on the fore­court of Te Papa, New Zealand’s na­tional mu­seum, came down to a sculp­ture mea­sur­ing just 7.5 cen­time­tres that was dis­played in­side the Welling­ton fa­cil­ity.

It was called Vir­gin In A Con­dom ,a cre­ation by Tania Ko­vats that fea­tured in the show Pic­tura Bri­tan­nica. That ex­hi­bi­tion ran from Fe­bru­ary 27 to April 26, 1998 – 19 years ago this month.

Ko­vats was part of the ‘‘brat pack’’, a group of Bri­tish artists cham­pi­oned by ad­ver­tis­ing mag­nate Charles Saatchi, and whose most fa­mous mem­ber was Damien Hirst.

Al­most from the show’s open­ing, the 7.5cm statue – lit­er­ally a stat­uette of the Vir­gin Mary cov­ered in a con­dom – sparked out­rage.

‘‘To refuse to re­move this beloved statue en­shrouded by a con­dom, which causes such grave of­fence to so many New Zealan­ders, must surely mean that the Mu­seum of New Zealand can no longer be called a ‘place for all New Zealan­ders’,’’ Welling­ton res­i­dent Amanda Suther­land said.

‘‘A ‘Ve­hi­cle for Cul­tural Mock­ery’ would be a more ap­pro­pri­ate line.’’

Mu­seum curator Ian Wedde said Te Papa had re­ceived about 40 let­ters of protest and sev­eral phone calls ask­ing for the art­work to be re­moved within days of the show open­ing.

Arthur Skinner – Art to his friends – was at the fore­front of the out­rage. It was he who started a group called Catholic Ac­tion af­ter his par­ish priest protested against the sculp­ture from the pul­pit.

‘‘I’m go­ing to go down there and I’m go­ing to pray in repa­ra­tion be­fore this statue and I’m go­ing to ask God’s for­give­ness and mercy on our coun­try that we’ve done this to an im­age of His Holy Mother,’’ he said, clutch­ing rosary beads in his hand, as the de­bate raged.

‘‘And that is what I did. We don’t have any woozy ideas about the Blessed Vir­gin. She is the com­man­der, she’s the queen of heaven.

‘‘A queen has troops, the an­gels if you like, in the spir­i­tual or­der, and her foot troops on the Earth, in the nat­u­ral or­der. She’s the boss and she com­mands.

‘‘She wants the best for God and for her son. Some peo­ple have called us the Blessed Vir­gin’s com­man­dos. And, ba­si­cally, that’s what I’m about at the mo­ment.’’

His anger was not just aimed at the mu­seum – out­side which he led prayer vig­ils each week­end – but also at bish­ops, who he said had lost their way.

Dur­ing the show, two peo­ple ap­peared in court: one for as­sault­ing a mu­seum worker; the other for smash­ing the glass case sur­round­ing the stat­uette. Four oth­ers were ar­rested while tak­ing part in demon­stra­tions. Mu­seum staff were threat­ened.

Speak­ing this week, Bor­chadt – aka top­less Jesus – re­called how she’d watched the protests from the win­dow of her ware­house flat op­po­site Te Papa. From there, the counter-protest plan was hatched.

Pre­vi­ous street the­atre meant she wasn’t con­cerned about go­ing top­less. ‘‘It is not re­ally you any more. You are just a body there to make a point.’’

She re­calls get­ting ready, then be­ing ‘‘whisked off to where the truck was’’.

Busi­ness­man David Black­more had the ve­hi­cle ready so they drove to Te Papa, con­cealed be­hind the slid­ing sides of the truck’s canopy.

She re­mem­bered boos and chant­ing and one lady who called her a witch when the truck’s side opened to re­veal the re­worked Last Sup­per. ‘‘You just had to stay re­ally calm – no re­ac­tion.’’

Af­ter a short stay, the sides were shut – per­haps by po­lice – and the truck left. Po­lice stopped them in Courte­nay Place and let her off with a warn­ing, rather than a charge of in­de­cent ex­po­sure.

Af­ter­wards, friends, and cus­tomers at the cafe where she worked, were pre­dictably sup­port­ive but it was a meet­ing with an 80-year-old re­li­gious woman, weeks af­ter, that made the biggest im­pact – even if the woman did not like the art­work. ‘‘She just liked that it cre­ated dis­cus­sion be­cause dis­cus­sion is healthy.’’

‘‘To refuse to re­move this beloved statue en­shrouded by a con­dom ... must surely mean the Mu­seum of New Zealand can no longer be called a ‘place for all New Zealan­ders’. A ‘Ve­hi­cle for Cul­tural Mock­ery’ would be a more ap­pro­pri­ate line.’’ Welling­ton woman Amanda Suther­land


The con­tro­ver­sial Vir­gin

In A Con­dom by Bri­tish artist Tania Ko­vats, when it was dis­played in Syd­ney, Aus­tralia. Counter-pro­test­ers express their anger from the back of a truck about Te Papa dis­play­ing Tania Ko­vats’ Vir­gin In A Con­dom in 1998. Po­lice stopped the group in Courte­nay Place af­ter they left the mu­seum but let top­less Jesus (played by Heidi Bor­chadt) off with a warn­ing, rather than an in­de­cent ex­po­sure charge. Now artist Heidi Bor­chadt says of go­ing top­less in 1998: ‘‘It is not re­ally you any more. You are just a body there to make a point.’’

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