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Issue 1806 (PDF)
The student newspaper of Imperial College London

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ALERT: Imperial's newest member

ALERT statue to be installed on Imperial College Road despite Union opposition and no student consultation.

ALERT Statue Photo: Felix


in Issue 1806

On Friday 26th November 2021, Felix first reported on the now-infamous ALERT statue, running the headline “Dongoor Plaza – Imperial College lawn re-opens as statue plans seen”. Since then, the statue has become the source of much controversy as a consequence of the 2m appendage protruding out of its lower torso, which many have interpreted as its penis.

The creator, acclaimed British sculptor Sir Antony Gormley, has denied this. In an interview with The Times on 7th August this year, he praised students for questioning “the decisions and context in which they are working”. However, he argued that “their objection is founded on a misinterpretation”, calling it the “sign of an overactive imagination”. Gormley claims that the figure is “squatting on its haunches and surveying the world around it”.

Calm before the storm

The first mention of ALERT appeared on 2nd August 2021 on the College website as part of an article on the long-term redevelopment of the South Kensington campus. The article is accompanied by a 3D render of the statue taken from behind. Conspicuously missing from this image are what in Gormley’s interpretation might be considered the “knees”, a point which Imperial College Union Council would later draw attention to.

Alert on College Website Photo: Imperial College London
Taken from behind: The ALERT statue as featured on the College website. The shaft is not visible as a consequence of the viewing angle.

On 10th August 2021, the College submitted a planning application for the statue, under the title “Installation of a new public art feature and public realm improvements”. Amongst the 27 documents included was the innocuously titled “Design and Access Statement”, containing the now-infamous renders of the ALERT statue. One astute observer submitted an objection to the application on 23rd August, noting that “the design of the sculpture seems to me to resemble a man with an erect phallus”. Aside from this, however, there appears to have been little knowledge of the statue outside of College circles. Felix understands that senior College staff saw and approved the­ plans.

Three months later, on 26th November, Felix found the renders whilst looking through the College’s planning applications. A picture of the statue was splashed across the front page of the paper, bringing ALERT in all its glory to the general public.

Felix Alert Article 1784 Photo: Felix
Felix Issue 1784, published 26th November 2021

The Union has its say

Controversy soon followed, and in January 2022, the Union Council passed a proposal to lobby against the installation of the statue, with 29 out of 32 council members voting in favour. It argued that students should have been consulted on the installation. The Union paper, seen by Felix, raised concerns about the potentially “phallic interpretation” of ALERT’s form. The statue was described as “exclusionary” given the College’s “issues with gender ratio and inclusion ”. A figure was produced to accompany the motion, explicitly indicating the alternative interpretation. The proposal further alleged that “College publicity regarding the statue chose an angle that avoided making the statue appear phallic”.

Image from Union motion Photo: Imperial College Union
Figure produced by Union to illustrate phallic interpretation of statue

“Phallic”, “hilarious”, “tragicomic”: how the press reacted

A slew of art outlets first picked up the story in early August, with national and international news publications following soon after. News coverage focused on student opposition to the installation and cited the Union proposal. In the UK, ALERT was featured by the BBC, The Guardian, The Daily Mail and more. Across the pond, The New York Post led with the headline, “Woke college students are ‘hurt’ by supposedly ‘phallic’ abstract sculpture”.  The story reached as far as Nairobi, where it was covered by People Daily. In Columbia, the nation’s oldest paper El Espectador kept things simple, opting for the headline, “Es un pene de tres metros” – or, “It is a three metre penis”, for those whose Spanish is a little rusty. “Students at Imperial College London don't want a statue erected on their campus that they say looks like a man with an erect penis”, the article continues.

Online editions of articles racked up hundreds of comments from members of the public. In particular, Daily Mail readers were quick to wade into the debate with their own musings. “The students must be as thick as whale omelettes and studying mickey mouse degrees,” said one Mail Online reader. Another agreed with the Union Council’s interpretation, but compared the installation to classical Roman art, remarking, “Ridiculous. The Romans built things with massive c...ks [sic] too”. Some readers were less sympathetic to the statue: “If this is art then I am an [sic] hippopotamus.”

What now?

At the time of writing, ALERT is being constructed on Imperial College Road, opposite Queen’s Tower. The statue is due to be formally unveiled by the College on 3rd October. Professor Hugh Brady, the recently instated President of Imperial, said, “We are grateful to Brahmal Vasudevan and Shanthi Kandiah for giving Imperial the opportunity to be the setting for a striking new artwork by one of the UK’s foremost living artists.”

Brahmal Vasudevan and his wife Shanthi Kandiah said, “We are both so delighted and excited to see the sculpture finally installed here on Imperial College Road.”

More photos of the statue can be found on the Felix Instagram account, @felix_imperial.

Update: The unveiling of the statue took place on 3rd October 2022. See below for a photo from the day of the ceremony.

ALERT statue unveiling Photo: Imperial College London
Left to right: Antony Gormley, Shanthi Kandiah, Brahmal Vasudevan and Imperial College President Hugh Brady at the ALERT statue unveiling on 3rd October 2022
Felix Alert Article 1806 Photo: Felix
Felix's print coverage of this story in Issue 1806, featuring a timeline of events and a fact sheet. Download the PDF from the website.

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