'Kitsch‚ mad-ugly' rhino extinction statue raises a storm

20 March 2018 - 08:00 By Tony Carnie
“The Last Three”, a bronze sculpture of the last surviving Northern White Rhinos in the world, has sparked controversy after it was unveiled in New York last week. Art critic Jerry Saltz asked why one of the animals is upside down and described the sculpture as “mad-ugly” and a “kitsch monstrosity”.
“The Last Three”, a bronze sculpture of the last surviving Northern White Rhinos in the world, has sparked controversy after it was unveiled in New York last week. Art critic Jerry Saltz asked why one of the animals is upside down and described the sculpture as “mad-ugly” and a “kitsch monstrosity”.
Image: Jessie Schattner

A massive bronze sculpture entitled “The Last Three” has gone on display in New York City‚ a sombre memorial to the impending demise of Africa’s last three Northern White Rhinos.

The unveiling has also sparked a social media row after art critic Jerry Saltz panned the sculpture as a “mad ugly” and “kitsch monstrosity”‚ though many others rallied to the artists’ defence and praised their attempts to raise global awareness about the plight of the world’s imperilled rhinos.

The 5m-high sculpture depicts the last Northern White Rhinos‚ three closely-related zoo survivors that were taken to the Ol Pejeta private sanctuary in Kenya in 2009 as part of a last-ditch attempt to resuscitate a rhino sub-species that is now extinct in the wild.

Closely-related to South Africa’s more numerous Southern White Rhino that almost became extinct more than a century ago‚ the Northern White Rhino used to live in Sudan‚ Uganda‚ Central African Republic and the DRC‚ but the last wild northern rhinos are thought to have been shot by poachers 12 years ago.

Now the last captive male‚ a 45 year-old bull named Sudan‚ is in poor health. Earlier this month there were fears that the bull was about to die because of a severe leg infection. Though Sudan has since rallied somewhat‚ it seems unlikely that bull can survive much longer at such an advanced age.

The second-last survivor‚ aged 29‚ is one of Sudan’s daughters‚ while the third survivor‚ now 18‚ is a grand-daughter of Sudan.

Because of their very limited gene pool and high risk of in-breeding‚ it seems unlikely that the animals can be rescued from final extinction – despite plans for artificial insemination or a last-ditch project to multiply them using stem cells and tissue samples from other zoo specimens that have since died.

On March 15 Australian sculptors - husband and wife artists Gillie and Marc Schattner – unveiled their seven ton sculpture in Astor Place‚ New York.

But soon after it was unveiled‚ Saltz wrote: “The Last Three is mad-ugly‚ little more than a place to take selfies‚ a circus of extinction come to town.

“It is an ugly‚ bathos-filled folly that proves my adage that 95 percent of all public sculpture is crap. This surreal-ish kitsch monstrosity is a stack of the last three northern white rhinos on Earth. The bottom one is standing with the next one resting on it‚ back to back — why? — facing up‚ and then supports the third one on its feet. It’s like a Vegas acrobatic act.”

Admirers hit back online‚ however‚ with “Crepesuzette” noting that critics had previously roasted what had since become very famous art works.

“The (Schattner’s) message is important for those who are already grieving rhinos in this part of the world and may never get to see them. Sure I would have probably preferred a more elegant and tasteful representation of them but sadly no other artist has cared enough to bring a project like this one to the masses‚ to express what they believed should be thought about and saved‚” she said in response to Saltz’s critique.

“This work reminds me of how there are still people out there that are passionate enough to have a dream to save animals‚ as they try create awareness in a personal‚ bold yet wild‚ eccentric and imperfect manner.”

The Schattner’s have also welcomed the controversy. Writing on their Facebook page‚ they responded: “By drawing attention to our art‚ featuring the last three Northern White rhinos you are helping us achieve exactly what we intended. The more people know about the plight of the rhinos‚ the more they will be empowered to get on board and create lasting change – so thank you for contributing to the cause.”

They also explained why one of the rhinos is upside down.

“We chose to stack them…in order to represent how precariously delicate their existence currently is. Each rhino on the sculpture must be perfectly balanced for it to work‚ just like nature itself.”

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