Thursday, August 7, 2008

Koh, Christ, Rupert

Presumably inspiring many "Christ has risen" tabloid headlines, Terence Koh's sculpture Gone, Yet Still is the subject of a lawsuit from outraged citizen Emily Mapfuwa. She is suing the Baltic Center for Contemporary Art for displaying the work, which features Jesus with an erection. The suit claims that the gallery breached Section 5 of the Public Order Act and offended public decency, the maximum penalty for which is six months in prison and a £5,000 ($10, 226 CDN) fine. Legal experts note that the hearing will be the first test of public decency legislation since the British government did away with the country's dated blasphemy laws in May, and could therefore lead to a landmark case.

Koh, who is the Sobey Award nominee for Ontario, is no stranger to this type of contraversy. In 2006, two of his works — including one that showed the Virgin Mary with a penis at a urinal — were withdrawn from an exhibition at the Royal Academy. His Baltic Center exhibition also featured sculptures of Mickey Mouse and E.T., sporting their own erections.

It reminds me of the sensational Oz trials in Britain in the early seventies. Oz was a kind of underground hippy satirical magazine ran by Richard Neville, Jim Anderson and Felix Dennis. Their offices had been raided by the Obscene Publications Squad several times, but Issue #28, which, amongst other things, featured Rubert Bear with a boner, led to charges being laid and the resulting obscenity trial was the longest in British History. An unusual charge of conspiracy, based on an archaic law, was also added, meaning that the resulting fine or imprisonment had no court defined limits.

The difference here, though, is that this controversial erection was drawn by a child. After criticism that the magazine was becoming out of touch, it made the radical gesture of turning over the editorial role to public school students for a single issue. This resulted in some surprisingly intelligent political opinion, but also, as one would imagine, in a fair amount of toilet humour. 15-year-old student Vivian Berger took a comic by Robert Crumb and added the head of the beloved Rupert Bear to it, which became the centrepiece of the trial:

Lawyer for the defense John Mortimer: You say you did it to shock an older generation? What relevance did Rupert have as a figure or symbol?

Berger: Well, Rupert would probably be known to many generations as the innocent young character who figures in magic fairy tales. Whereas here, he’s just doing what every normal human being does.

Mortimer: Was it part of your intention to show that there was a more down-to-earth side of childhood than some grown-up people are prepared to think?

Berger Oh yes. This is the kind of drawing that goes around every classroom, every day, in every school.

Judge (looking wounded): Do you really mean that?

Berger: Yes, I do mean it. Maybe I was portraying obscenity, but I don’t think I was being obscene myself. If the news covers a war or shows a picture of war, then, for me, they are portraying obscenity—the obscenity of war. But they are not themselves creating that obscenity, because it is the people who are fighting the war that are creating that obscenity. The obscenity is in the action, not in the reporting of it. For example, I consider that the act of corporal punishment is an obscenity. I do not consider that the act of reporting or writing about corporal punishment is obscene.

The trial attracted high profile attention, with comedian Marty Feldman, DJ John Peel, and academic Edward De Bono all testifying on behalf of the defense. John Lennon and Yoko Ono marched in protest against the charges, and contributed financial assistance. The verbatim transcription of the trial reads like a play, and there were much theatrics, including a day when all three defendants appeared wearing rented schoolgirl costumes.

When the trial wrapped up, the "Oz Three" were all found guilty and sentenced to prison. Dennis was given a lesser sentence, because the judge considered him "very much less intelligent" than Neville and Anderson (depending on your point of view, he proved him very right or very wrong by going on to publish the leading men's magazine Maxim). Shortly after the verdicts were handed down they were taken to prison and had their heads shaved (causing further outcry) but were eventually all acquitted on appeal (during which they all wore wigs).

The magazine folded a few years later. Neville has been portrayed by actors Hugh Grant and Cillian Murphy.

Above: the offending comic, and a painting of a book documenting the case, by Roula Partheniou.

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