From The Gates to ‘Dueling Tampons:’ The Most Ridiculed Works of Public Art


We know that “everyone’s a critic” is just a saying, but, when it comes to public art, seriously, everyone is a critic. We can’t blame bored teenagers, confused moms, and everyone in-between for poking fun at the usually-gigantic installations imposed on cities who want to convert their everyday spaces into an open-air museum. As much as we love some good highbrow criticism of these sorts of pieces, we’re just as interested in the controversies these works create on the street. After the jump, check out nine hyped works of public art and the dirty nicknames, biting jokes, and larger scandals forever swirling around their legacies.

Covenant, Philadelphia

At the University of Pennsylvania, the red rolled sheets of milled steel towering over a campus pathway affectionately known as “Dueling Tampons.” The installation was set up in 1975 and dirty-minded college students haven’t left the poor sculpture alone since.

Male/Female, Baltimore

Outside of Baltimore’s main train hub, Penn Station, city-commissioned sculptor Jonathan Borofsky planted his 51-foot-tall aluminum statue depicting an intersecting silhouette of a male with the silhouette of a female as a part of the station’s 2004 plaza redesign. While defenders of the work say the piece compliments the urban landscape, the piece has garnered more criticism for clashing with the classic beauty and clean lines of the Beaux-Arts station. As Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks wrote, “Patrons of art here paid $750,000 for a 51-foot sculpture … that looks like Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still. I look at it and want to say: ‘Klaatu barada nikto!'” For us, the kicker is really the statue’s light-up LED heart — it’s one thing to visually offend by day, but Male/Female manages to be obnoxious even after dark.

Statue of Anna Livia, Dublin

Dubliners are famous for the ridiculous nicknames given to the city’s statues, and the Statue of Anna Livia is no exception. Although the a woman sitting on a slope with bubbling water rushing past her was designed to personify the River Liffey, she’s instead garnered the nicknames “The Floozie in the Jacuzzi” and “The Whore in the Sewer” (“whore” pronounced like “hoo-or” to complete the rhyme). Fun fact: even the artist himself had a good time with the work and called her “The Floozie.”

Monument of Light, Dublin

The Monument of Light already has a popularized nickname — the Spire of Dublin — so it doesn’t need any more, right? Wrong. The Spire gets teased constantly by the mischievous locals with nicknames. Our favorites are probably “The Stiffy at the Liffey,” “The Erection in the Intersection,” “The Stiletto in the Ghetto,” and “The Binge Syringe.”

Two Women, Dublin

Dublin, we aren’t done with you yet. In fact, we think we might have a little crush on your flair for silly art nicknames. While any other population would see this fairly commonplace statue as nothing more than a good receptacle for pre-chewed gum, they’ve gone and christened these casually conversing ladies “The Hags with the Bags.” Well done, Ireland.

Teddy Bear, New York

Urs Fischer’s 23-foot-high, 35,000-pound yellow teddy bear sculpture is on display through September at the Segram Building Plaza along Park Avenue. Not too many have ventured to mess with the artist who has been called the “Jeff Koons of his generation,” but it’s a gigantic stuffed animal in the middle of Midtown Manhattan. You do the math.

The Gates, New York City

Christo and Jeanne-Claudes’ Central Park installation The Gates, which brought a series of 7,503 vinyl orange gates to its winding walkways, was proposed initially in 1979 and wasn’t green-lit until February of 2005, when it was on view just over two weeks. The cost for the project was over $21 million and got the brunt of Manhattan’s biting wit for some time, for both its practicality (David Letterman: “When I get mugged by a guy hiding behind a giant curtained arch, which city agency should I sue?”) and its aesthetic (Ricky Gervais: “It looked like a giant Buddhist’s laundry.”)

Dreamspace IV, County Durham, England

Perhaps the most deserving of scrutiny for endangering viewers, Dreamspace IV, the creation of London-based artist Maurice Agis, was a 16 foot-high inflatable rainbow maze that invited participants to walk through its passages. Thirty viewers were inside when the artwork broke from its supports and drifted 30 feet into the air, carrying 120 feet before it snagged a TV pole and was brought down, killing two and seriously injuring one.

The Maine Department of Labor Mural

The New York Times recently featured another more serious complaint about public art and its political implications: in Maine, Republican Governor Paul LePage is taking down a mural depicting Maine’s workers’ history at the state’s Department of Labor building because it appears “too one-sided in favor of unions.” According to the article, LePage received an anonymous fax saying, “it was reminiscent of “communist North Korea where they use these murals to brainwash the masses.” Is it just us, or is it weird that the town of Pawnee has less of a problem with its government murals? If the Parks & Recreation gang doesn’t have to take their twisted murals too seriously, can’t we all just make peace with Rosie the Riveter?