Thordis Adalsteinsdottir's "Bear Eats Man" (2013) before the fence was constructed around it (photo by Susan Richards, via

Thordis Adalsteinsdottir’s “Bear Eats Man” (2013) before the fence was constructed around it (photo by Susan Richards, via

A work on view in Socrates Sculpture Park’s Emerging Artist Fellowship exhibition has been surrounded by a tall wood fence after some Queens residents complained that it was lewd and inappropriate, the New York Times reports.

The piece, titled “Bear Eats Man,” was made by Icelandic-born, New York–based artist Thordis Adalsteinsdottir. In a rough-hewn, folky style, it depicts a bear approaching a naked man from behind and getting ready to take a bite out of his shoulder. But, as the Daily News (ever so subtly) pointed out in an article that ran the day after the show opened, the man also has an erection:

“The figures are meant as a commentary on the adversarial, and at times violent, confrontation between ‘man’ and ‘nature,’ said John Hatfield, executive director of the Socrates Sculpture Park. “This male nude is not intended to be sexually provocative.”

Oh, but it is! It is!

That article also quoted Rob MacKay, director of the Queens Tourism Council, as calling the sculpture “in poor taste.”

Two and a half months later, a blogger who goes by the name George the Atheist, and whom the Times calls “well-read,” wrote an “open letter to the New York City Parks Commissioner Veronica White.” Its message was clear from the title: “Bestiality Sanctioned at Queens Park.” George the Atheist wrote:

Dear Ms White:  I recently discovered this work of “art” at the Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City.  Please see photos below.  I was curious as to how the Parks Department of which you are the Commissioner ever approved of the emplacement of such an item?   I am certain many citizens would find and have found in it moral offense in its visual obscenity.  Do you?

Surely you are aware that this so-called “sculpture” is situated on parkland that is tax-payer supported?  Was there ever a public hearing held on the appropriateness of this so-called “sculpture”?

George goes on to call Adalsteinsdottir an “artist” — in quotes — and even has a bit of wordplay fun, calling her artist statement “cock and bull” and “blowsy” copy. He ends by claiming that the sculpture “borders on child abuse.”

According to the Queens Chronicle, the parks department responded to George, telling him that artworks displayed in the park are not subject to their approval. Socrates Sculpture Park officials also placed a sign at the entrance to the park, warning of nudity inside. But George countered that it was too small, and Socrates officials responded again by saying they would “re-evaluate the sign” with the artist’s input. Finally, they decided on a tall wood fence, which was placed around the sculpture within the last week and a half.

Outside of the handful of commenters the Daily News was able to drum up and George the Atheist, it’s not clear whether any large number of people were offended by the sculpture. But the pressure worked. From pictures, it looks as though the new wood fence blocks the sculpture quite effectively, enclosing it on three sides and leaving only the heads of the figures visible from afar; the fourth, open side, is dominated by a cluster of trees. In an interview with the Times, Hatfield insisted that the fence does not constitute censorship: “Censorship would be to remove or alter the work itself, to deny the ability to see the work.”

Neither Socrates Sculpture Park nor Thordis Adalsteinsdottir responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment by the time of publication.

Update, 5:44pm EST: Socrates Sculpture Park has sent us a written statement from Executive Director John Hatfield. It reads, in part:

Public art, on occasion, can be challenging, and we support artists and artworks in the public domain that engage people on many different levels and topics.  We support Thordis Adalsteinsdottir’s figurative tableau, Bear Eats Man, as a thought-provoking work of art. In response to concerns about this particular sculpture, Socrates and the artist decided to create a perimeter outdoor area with signage so parents, guardians and teachers would be able to preview the artwork to decide if appropriate for minors. Similar to a museum setting, the partition allows visitors to decide if they wish to view the sculpture or not.

While we would ideally like our temporary public art to be embraced by everyone, we realistically expect a diversity of reactions—not all favorable–regardless of the style or content of the work. It is everyone’s first amendment right to express their concerns about and appreciation for this work of art. It has been, and continues to be, the role of artists to inspire and confound, elucidate and mystify, reveal truths and create fiction. Socrates Sculpture Park has exhibited over 900 hundred artists over 27 years and supports their creative endeavors.

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art and politics but has also been known to write at length about cats. She won the 2014 Best...

20 replies on “NYC Sculpture Park Places Fence Around ‘Controversial’ Artwork [UPDATED]”

  1. Oh my! A human male figure with a penis on it! How horrible! Perhaps George the Atheist should build a fence over his easily offended eyes, and the rest of us could get on with our lives, enjoying sculpture in the park.

    1. urinal was called art 100 years ago, it is in a museum, what else could you expect 100 years on. it’s good something still called art after this. no really if urinal is art everything else too, matter is for how much someone sells it to you. Since you reading this and even commenting you bought piece of it for your time, he he at least.

          1. Being the temperamental artist that I am, I usually just flush without a second thought; but then I don’t go around with my head up the ol’ thought maker.

  2. I support freedom of expression and artists. However, it is kind of weird to put a sculpture in a park where kids can go (yes there is a warning, but who reads warnings?) when that sculpture has an erect penis right at child’s eye level with a bear pressed up against the back of the man and reaching around towards the penis while he seemingly lovingly kisses the man’s neck. At the very least it just doesn’t seem tactful on the park’s part. I can’t help thinking they could have avoided the bad press by thinking ahead, but any press is good for the arts I guess.

    1. Umm…per kids: 1) it’s not REAL 2) It doesn’t appear to be reaching for anything but around his waist 3) he’s not lovingly kissing him – he’s trying to eat him (bears don’t kiss people) 4) you support freedom of expression and artists and – censorship.

      1. I’m glad they got the publicity. I hope it helps their fundraising. I think the fence is probably a little silly, but once they got the press about it someone higher up likely pressured them to do a dance and make nice. I apologize if it came across that way, but I said nothing about censoring it. I’ve looked at all the pictures all the way around the piece and it does actually look to me the way I explained it. I’m entirely OK with others disagreeing, but for me the fact that for the most part it is very abstract but then draws attention to the penis while at the same time showing the bear pressed up against him standing like a human with human-like legs and arms shows that it has connotations far beyond just a bear eating a person. And that is fine, whether he intended it or not. Art is only partly the expression of the artist, its interpretation is in the eye of people who view it. I just meant that I probably would have expected someone to complain about this piece and been ready for it if I was the group showing it, but perhaps they underestimated it. You can’t really fault them; they just wanted to have interesting pieces I’m sure. Hopefully more people went to see the entire show because of it.

  3. Not only do I like this piece, but I like it a lot for many reasons. It is important to view it in the context of the visual culture and the art of the country of the artist. Visually it is very attractive.The logic of the critical ‘adults’ does not take into consideration the fact that, when children go to the Metropolitam Museum, they will see many ‘nudes’ in all the floors and also in the special department of African Art….This piece could very well be the illustration of a dream…(Years ago I had a dream of navigating in a river, that did not have water, but a forest…I never forgot that incongruous dream…) I would gladly let my grandchildren see this piece…

    1. Too funny,” I would gladly let my grandchildren see this [PIECE]…” But you know, I think you have the wrong site, Nambla people are posting their comments on another page.

  4. For the most part, the piece is so abstact – what is the artist’s point to include the penis in the first place? Even so, It makes sense for people to be more realistic and not offended by a perfectly normal area of the human body. It’s art ‘in the eye of the beholder’ – George should put his big boy panties on (maybe over his eyes) and get over it already.

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