Trapped in giant vagina, people killed, toddler burned – dangers of public art

The B of the Bang sculpture designed by Thomas Heatherwick in Manchester. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian Christopher Thomond/Guardian

When 22 firefighters rescued a US exchange student after he got stuck inside a giant sculpture of a vagina in southern Germany, it was, presumably, taxpayers who picked up the bill. So how does the state assess the potential dangers from works of art?

While perhaps not as eye-catching as the US student’s plight, there are plenty of other instances of harm caused by art. South West news service recently reported that a toddler in Somerset burned his hand on a large piece of public art that was heated by the sun. Vittorio Mochi, who is 23 months old, had had to be treated in hospital after touching the steel sculpture, that forms part of a public art trail around the marina development in Portishead.

In that instance – as, presumably, with the German sculpture by Peruvian artist Fernando de la Jara, which has been outside Tübingen University’s Institute for Microbiology and Virology since 2001 – there was no public warning of the potential dangers.

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North Somerset council said the artwork, called Viaggio, was owned by developer Persimmon Homes rather than the local authority. It was created by artist Louise Plant and was installed in 2009 as part of a public art programme.

One local government officer said that most new public art tends to be part of a development – so the developer is responsible for checking health and safety: “In short, we don’t go around with a clipboard checking for safety risks.”

In 2006 an inflatable public sculpture killed two people and injured 13 when it broke from its ties in County Durham. The ropes holding down the huge sculpture by Maurice Agis were not strong enough, allowing the artwork to flip over and deflate. Chester-le-Street council, which assessed its safety, was fined £20,000 after admitting breaching health and safety rules.

In 2009, a giant steel starburst-like structure, The B of the Bang, by Olympics cauldron designer Thomas Heatherwick, had to be taken down, four years after its launch in Manchester as part of the Commonwealth games, after being dogged with health and safety issues. Some of its 180 spikes fell off and others came loose. The sculpture had originally cost £2m and Manchester city council sued Heatherwick’s studio and three sub-contractors, who paid £1.7m in an out-of-court settlement. When the sculpture was melted down, the council got £17,000 for the scrap metal.

Some art remains more dangerous to the artist than to the public. Serbian artist Marina Abramović, whose exhibition is at the Serpentine Gallery in London in June, ended up “covered in blood and tears” following an installation in 1974 where she laid out items, including a pistol with live bullets, and invited the public to use them on her in any way they chose.

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US student is rescued from giant vagina sculpture in Germany

More than 20 firefighters free exchange student from the artwork Chacán-Pi (Making Love) by Fernando de la Jara in Tübingen
Firefighters consider how to free the student from the vagina sculpture
Firefighters consider how to free the student from the vagina sculpture. Photograph: Erick Guzman/Imgur

In the space of 24 hours last week, two spectacular rescue operations were carried out in southern Germany.

Both involved men who had become trapped deep inside cave-like structures, and a large team working to set them free. But if explorer Johann Westhauser is expected to soon tell the world how he got trapped inside Germany’s deepest cave, an anonymous exchange student might prefer to keep quiet about the story of how he got into a tight spot.

The student waits to be rescued from the giant vagina sculpture
The student waits to be rescued. Photograph: Erick Guzman/Imgur

On Friday afternoon, a young American in Tübingen had to be rescued by 22 firefighters after getting trapped inside a giant sculpture of a vagina. The Chacán-Pi (Making Love) artwork by the Peruvian artist Fernando de la Jara has been outside Tübingen University’s institute for microbiology and virology since 2001 and had previously mainly attracted juvenile sniggers rather than adventurous explorers.

According to De la Jara, the 32-ton sculpture made out of red Veronese marble is meant to signify “the gateway to the world”.

Police confirmed that the firefighters turned midwives delivered the student “by hand and without the application of tools”.

The mayor of Tübingen told the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper that he struggled to imagine how the accident could have happened, “even when considering the most extreme adolescent fantasies. To reward such a masterly achievement with the use of 22 firefighters almost pains my soul.”

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