The Only Thing Revealed by the Nude Sculpture of Angela Merkel Is That the Artist Needs a Better Idea

The marble statue by Adel Abdessemed defrocks the German Chancellor and friends, but lacks a critical edge.

by Michael Wilson
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Mar 8 2018, 4:01pm

Adel Abdessemed’s newest solo show, L’Antidote, which opens at the MAC Lyon in France tomorrow, is attracting notice already for one inclusion in particular—a marble sculpture of a nude Angela Merkel.

Adel Abdessemed, Is Beautiful, 2017-18 © Adagp, Paris, 2018

Fueled by “passion and rage,” the Paris-based whipper-up of provocative situations (he calls them “acts”) has often been the locus of art-world and wider public outrage. In 2009, fired up by his video showing a menagerie of animals fighting it out inside a locked pen, a Southern Californian council was even moved to propose a change in the law (2009’s Humanitarian Art Ordinance, which states that an artwork should be deemed illegal when its maker has caused animal suffering).

Abdessemed’s new work, the sweetly titled Is Beautiful (2017–18), shows the German chancellor strolling with two friends, both also starkers. Slightly larger than life-size, it’s based on a real photo of Merkel taken in the former GDR at a time when George W. Bush’s conference crush was a member of the Free German Youth movement, and naturism was enjoying a spike in popularity. The shot was also reproduced in Vanity Fair when Merkel was running for a third term in office in 2005. Evidently it did little if any damage to her numbers at the ballot box.

Classicists will see an echo of Antonio Canova’s indelible Three Graces (1814–17) in Is Beautiful, but there are contemporary associations too. Charles Ray’s unsettling Family Romance (1993), in which the handholding naked figures of two parents and two children are all rendered at the exact same height, is one; Edgar Askelovic’s perhaps less innovative but still striking recent nude of Rihanna wearing only a Jean-Michel Basquiat-styled football helmet is another. (GARAGE’s report on Askelovic’s work also namechecks high-art nudes of Kate Moss and Britney Spears; this is clearly a strategy that, while not a little creepy, has legs).

We’ve come to expect social-political antagonism from Abdessemed, but while Is Beautiful was surely conceived in a critical vein—the artist seems an unlikely choice for German artist laureate—the result has a oddly bland look and feel. The original photo is a sweet document of a simpler time and is already in the public realm, so it's tough to see what a three-dimensional version adds. And if the artist had body-shaming in mind, the result feels doubly off-base. This is a leader, after all, who just named a strikingly gender-balanced new cabinet.