This is the story behind a festive art sculpture commissioned by the City of Rotterdam that went hilariously awry.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
Everyone loves Christmas, so when the City of Rotterdam decided to commission a festive sculpture in 2001, they must have thought they were onto a winner. And in a way they were – the statue that Paul McCarthy produced is an artistic triumph, renowned the world over. BUT, it came with it’s fair share of controversy. How could a statue of good old St. Nick get people’s knickers in a twist? Let us explain.
McCarthy is an an avant-garde LA artist who draws influence from Freud, Beckett and Viennese Actionism. He creates work that challenges consumerism and the tenets underlying Western Culture. ‘We become what we see in the media,’ McCarthy warns. Clearly he wants us to think a little more deeply about this. That’s exactly what his Santa Claus does.
The bronze statue was ‘intended’ to show everyone’s favourite bearded fatty holding a festive bell and a Christmas tree. But, in true McCarthy style, it ended up being so much more than that. His sculpture sexes up Santa by replacing said Christmas tree with a giant butt plug. ‘Of course,’ we can almost hear you saying. Many may share the urge to spice up a Christmas family gathering by remarking on the clear similarity between the festive shrub and a least favoured sex toy.
Maybe not. But Santa Claus forces to confront that likeness.When you see it with your own eyes, it’s hard not to feel like Christmas is kind of violating you. Plus, plenty of people stroll past Santa and burst out laughing. Thought provoking and funny, who could argue with that?
Well, it seems that some of the locals had a bit of a sense of humour failure. Santa Claus became widely known as ‘Kabouter Buttplug’ – the butt plug gnome – and it’s fair to say not everyone found it funny. The statue was deemed too controversial to be installed in its intended site in Schouwburgplein square, and residents and shop owners alike rejected proposals to ensconce the naughty gnome on one of Rotterdam’s primary shopping streets. Santa finally found a place to rest his legs in Museum Park in 2005, but was uprooted in 2008 and moved to Eendrachtsplein on the other side of the park.
Since then it’s been smoother sailing. In fact, lots of people think the butt plug gnome is pretty damn cool. In 2009, the marketing class at Hogeschool Rotterdam sent a real life butt plug Santa onto the streets, filming his exploits to draw attention to McCarthy’s work. And a quick Google search will show any number of people happily posing alongside it.
That’s not to say everyone’s gotten on board. Inez Van Dam lives and owns a bookshop in Eendrachtsplein: her reaction was angry enough to inspire a play, Looking for Paul, which has been performed all over the world. Seriously. And while many consider the €180,000 price tag on Santa Claus to have been a steal, there have been some killjoys who have since questioned the appropriacy of publicly funded art.
But McCarthy hasn’t been discouraged by the mixed reaction to Santa Claus. If anything, his subsequent works have grown increasingly controversial. WS is a multimedia exhibition that subverts the story of Snow White, transforming it into a bizarre, pornographic nightmare. Most recently he has returned to the butt plug with his giant, green inflatable ‘Tree’, which was briefly erected in Place Vendôme in Paris. It was so unpopular that a passerby slapped McCarthy, vandals cut the cords keeping the inflatable standing, and #pluggate started trending on Twitter. Woah...chill, Paree.
It will be exciting to see what Paul comes up with next. And while Paris’ ‘Tree’ was all too short lived, Kabouter Buttplug would seem to be here to stay. He’s been in his Eendrachtsplein home for close to a decade, and even Rotterdam’s more pious residents seem to be finally getting used to the world’s sleaziest santa.
The city certainly wouldn’t be the same without him. Don’t leave without checking out the butt plug gnome for yourself.