Nicolas Party's giant colourful heads have landed in the Piper Gallery, and the effect is amazing. Almost everyone lets out an involuntary 'Wow' at the vibrant colour and sheer size of the five uniform but varied heads spread out across the space. Although huge (five feet high or so) they don't overwhelm the space, but stand facing in different directions so that you can't see all the heads from any one spot. Each has a hidden speaker underneath so that they seem to be muttering snippets of past Modern Art Oxford events. They're a far cry from the previous occupant, Aleksandra Mir, whose vast canvases seemed somehow very far away.
Party himself is Swiss-born but works in
The heads were prototyped using 3D printing and very up to date technology, and based on stylised, anonymous shop mannequin style figures. But the finishing, with wood, wire, plaster was a much more handcrafted process. They were shipped from
So far, so fab. The part that raises questions for me is about their femininity. For a start, the heads are quite androgynous in shape. We know they're female because the artist has told us so. There are pointers, like the sculpted eyebrows and lipstick, a downcast gaze, but also short hair and gamine faceshape. It's a good illustration of societal norms at play.
Then we have the response to an imbalance of male power, by a male artist. The literature is careful to note this is not THE response but A response to the Emperors. What we have here is Party's twopenn'orth thrown into the debate about feminism, and again it's a good starting point. Modern Art Oxford have a lot of events planned, not directly related to the Speakers but encompassing questions about feminism and suffrage (and revelling in the fact that it's about to be the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, which gave women the vote, albeit those over 30). And of course with Modern Art Oxford's championing of female artists one cannot question their feminist and egalitarian credentials.
It is of course impossible to sum up women, but one thing I do think of as a widespread female trait is that of striking up conversation with strangers. Women are sociable. With their blank expressions staring out in different directions, these Speakers seem to be misnamed, and while I can see they create a more theatrical and interesting space this way, I feel sad they don't celebrate the skill of engaging with others.
But who wants art that tidily answers questions, clears up the debate over feminism, and has the last word? Sometimes it takes an outside observer to see with new eyes. If Party's gaze illuminates something about my city, or my gender, that I have overlooked then great. Party, as a classically trained graffiti artist with a distinctly Magritte-ish air is probably the sort of disruptive influence that an entrenched and age-old conversation needs.