Much of the mystery surrounding the Venus de Milo concerns her missing arms, from their fate to what they may have held. For a brief moment this week, people in her home city of Paris could observe her posing with a very particular pair, made of resin instead of marble.
On Tuesday, March 6, a full-scale, highly detailed replica of the female figure stood at the Louvre-Rivoli metro station with 3D-printed prostheses attached to her shoulders. One, bent, held an apple; the other lay on her thigh. The action was organized by the aid organization Handicap International as part of its campaign to boost awareness of the global need for prosthetics. The French nonprofit has developed a pilot program to produce 3D-printed limbs in a process that reduces manufacturing time while improving accessibility for patients in remote regions or conflict zones; it has already organized trials in Togo, Madagascar, and Syria. According to its numbers, about 100 million people around the world need artificial limbs.
The iconic statue by Alexandros of Antech was not the only one to receive prostheses. The team selected a dozen others around Paris, including actual statues in the Jardin des Tuileries and Parc Monceau. The 18th-century statue, “Alexandre Combattant,” by Charles-Francois Leboeuf was fitted with a right forearm, complete with sword; a figure of Deianira, frozen mid-abduction by the centaur Nessus, raises a printed arm in a gesture that underscores the agony of her violation. Below each revised artwork was a banner with the hashtag #BODYCANTWAIT and the message, translated from French: “No body in the world should wait so long before being repaired.”
It’s a poor choice of words that problematically frames disabled individuals as broken. Yet, the campaign’s use of historical sculpture creates striking visuals — new works of art, even — that imagine prosthetics as not only tools but desirable products. Artist and researcher Sara Hendren has written, on her website Abler, about assistive technologies such as eyeglasses that have entered a “desirable aesthetic realm … . These innovations have the potential to de-stigmatize, even naturalize, the normal human variation that we know as disabilities of various kinds,” she writes. Attached, in particular, to the Venus de Milo — historically extolled in the West as the epitome of (Western) female beauty — perhaps prosthetic limbs, too, can be seen with less stigma.
The intervention lasted one day only, although Handicap International is urging people to share the photographs on social media with its hashtag. Far from a viral stunt, the campaign is a powerful call to the public to consider how we think about abled and disabled bodies in terms of normalcy and abnormalcy. It not only makes aids highly visible, literally placing some on pedestals, but also positions them as culturally meaningful by aligning their value with that of classical Greek sculpture — long venerated, even if fractured, for unparalleled perfection.