He says the anatomical armchair honors the suffering of abused women. She says the design actually perpetuates gendered violence.

On Sunday, April 7, Milan Design Week got off to a rocky start when Italian feminists came to the Piazza del Duomo to protest a monumental sculpture honoring Gaetano Pesce’s infamous female-shaped Up armchair. The 26-foot-high installation, called Maestà Sofferente (Suffering Majesty) resembles a women’s torso crucified by arrows and chained to a ball. For added effect, the architect-designer included six giant polystyrene busts of wild animals to signify human cruelty.

At the end of an inauguration ceremony, the Italian feminist group Non Una Di Meno staged a protest in front of the work with signs reading “Ceci n’est pas une femme” (this is not a woman) — texts often used in demonstrations by the Guerrilla Girls. Their placards also contained statistics revealing that an Italian woman is killed every 72 hours and that 1 in 3 adult women has suffered some form of physical or sexual abuse. The group later released a statement on their Facebook page, writing: “A woman is for the umpteenth time represented as an inert body and victim, without ever calling into question the actor of the violence.”

The creation of Pesce’s original armchair did not occur in a bubble. He fabricated the piece in 1969, the same year that British pop artist Allen Jones created his series of chairs that show women wearing fetish clothing portrayed as objects. Decades later, the Norwegian artist-provocateur Bjarne Melgaard ignited a firestorm of criticism when in 2014 he photographed the Russian socialite Dasha Zhukova sitting on a nearly-naked mannequin of a Black woman. A tribute to Jones’ originals, Melgaard released a collection of similar chairs and tables built with women’s bodies.

On Monday, the self-described “artivist” Cristina Donati Meyer threw red varnish onto Pesce’s sculpture “as a kind of menstruation to bring back to reality the artist who imagines a woman only as a piece of furniture,” according to a message she posted on Facebook.

“Today, after 50 years, the existence of women is even more under threat, although luckily there are more and more voices raising to their defense,” Pesce said in a statement. “The installation in Piazza del Duomo during Design Week is intended to celebrate Italian creativity, but also to bring back this painful message to the conscience of thousands of visitors from all over the world.”

Organizers from Milan Design Week are also trying to spin the protest into a positive light for the festival. Milan’s assessor of fashion and design, Cristina Tajani described the controversy as an important part of the cultural debate. “It is positive that women are speaking out on the representation of their own bodies,” she wrote on Tumblr. Tajani, who invited Pesce to participate in the program, also added:  “The creative space of Design Week is, and must be, a space for discussion on the meaning of a work of art, not only an aperitivo party.”

Currently, there are no plans to remove the work before the festival ends on April 14.

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Zachary Small

Zachary Small was the senior writer at Hyperallergic and has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, Artforum, and other publications. They have...

4 replies on “In Milan, Feminists Protest a Public Sculpture that Supposedly Stands for Women’s Empowerment”

  1. Commissioning a male artist to create sculpture that “critiques of violence against women” — in what universe does this make any sense?

    1. Exactly. No surprise that “a woman is for the umpteenth time represented as an inert body and victim, without ever calling into question the actor of the violence.” If men want to stay relevant as cutting edge artists they might want to consider critiquing men’s violence against every living thing.

  2. Astonishing is the word that comes to mind. Powerfully dynamic, capturing precisely what the contemporary scene seems to say.

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