Fear and loathing in Rotterdam Posted on Thursday 27 May 2010

There’s nothing like easing yourself into touring with a sunny day in a European city. But there’s something almost utopian about the sheer number of bikes, water features (canals, lakes, The Sea), and public art displays in Rotterdam. A particularly eye-catching piece was visible out of our window: 6m (20 foot) Santa holding a giant butt plug (its bigger than his head!). This bronze ‘Santa’ (chocolate and inflatable versions also exist): quickly came to be known locally as a ‘gnome’, and no wonder: it looks strikingly like a garden figurine or a Disney character out of Snow White. It’s at once captivating and repulsive, capturing the irony of a children’s mythology that has become aggressively commercialized. Yet for me this saucy statue is also unavoidably about sexual liberation. The contradictory assemblage of butt plug and santa together form a sort of dark anti-mythology where we are confronted with our own unspoken fantasies and desires. And all this miraculously through the medium of (nervous?) laughter.

Later on, after our show at the very awesome Rotown I was approached by a middle-aged woman who introduced herself as Janne. It turns out she is my friend Nick Goss’ aunt (you can see his breathtaking paintings here, and coincidentally was one of the people who lobbied the city council to have the statue put on public display. The city bought the sculpture in 2003 without anyone having seen it (or presumably having done any research at all – this is work from a man who has smeared himself with ketchup and put a Barbie doll in his rectum). The statue initially faced huge opposition from within the council and in 2008, as a compromise, was displayed in the inner courtyard of the Boijmans Museum. “Think of the children” was the slogan of its detractors. Janne’s retort: “if a child knows what a butt-plug is, then there’s a problem”. She says the local kids just see a gnome with a stylized Christmas tree or an ice-lolly. I like the idea of this statue having a part to play in local adolescents’ story of sexual self-discovery. Janne was certainly thrilled when it was finally unveiled in its original planned location ‘De Koopgoot’ at the intersection of two busy roads in downtown Rotterdam, for everyone to make their own mind up.

Finally, I wondered if I could extend my own interpretation to what looks like a bell in the gnome’s left hand. Could it in fact be another accessory to the contemporary liberal menstruator: the mooncup ? If other people see it too then, ladies, this gnome has our future in its hands!

Until next time