I think it was more than 20 years ago that a friend of mine in Turkey told me how one day as he was flipping through channels came upon a program similar to Family Feud in the US, where teams of people were asked to guess the possible answers to a survey question that were previously posed to a group of 100 people. In this one—in which the results stopped him cold in his tracks—the contestants were asked this: “We asked 100 people, what do you see in a public square?”
And he asked me the same question: “What do YOU see in a public square?” And, my answer was, “a fountain”, which to him was something logical to see in a square. I can’t remember what he had imagined himself but I believe it was something like a monument or a sculpture.
Later I asked the same question to my parents: My father said “clock tower,” which is funny because for all the places in the world he has seen and lived in he would think to name the one monument that was the main feature of his childhood town, and my mother, surprising me, said “obelisk”. It surprised me, because when I had said “fountain” somehow I had thought of the Fontana di Trevi in Rome. I told her that, that considering that Rome was HER favorite city, how come she hadn’t said that. To which she replied that indeed, she did think of Rome, but that it was the obelisk at St. Peter’s Square in Vatican that she thought of.
Which brings me to the subject of obelisks. I remember a class I took—and loved—back in my freshman (freshwoman?) year in college called the History of Western Civilizations. It started with Egypt, and in Egypt obelisks were built as symbols of the Sun God Ra. They are also phallic symbols because why else would later civilizations through conquest, imperialism, colonialism all put together removed obelisks out of their original locations, Egypt, and took, or gave them to be displayed in Rome (in fact the city with the most obelisks), London, New York, Paris and Istanbul back when it was Constantinople, the capital of the Roman/Byzantine Empire.
Obelisk of Theodosius
In a way, these cities become focal points to show they are centers of civilization now, and that they have the power.
They are phallic symbols of a religion long gone, taken out of their places of origin where western civilization started in the first place. In a way doesn’t it seem like saying, “Hey, now I am civilization"? It’s about male domination. To have power you have to be a man, to have a penis and be free to display it.
Consider this: Obelisks are such symbols of power that when a monument to Washington was to be erected ;) a brand new monolith obelisk, standing at 555 feet—making it the highest obelisk in the world—was constructed anew to mark it as the new center of power.
And we get used to them so much though. And demand to see obelisk-like structures and seek them. Now, going back to what shocked my friend and me about the answer to the question of what one sees in a public square in Turkey was that more than 70%, or some other great number of people, had answered, “people”. They see People. Not a phallic structure like an obelisk or a clock tower as per our western notions of aesthetics, art, architecture and city planning would, but people. I on the other hand, am in Barcelona right now and when I look at Plaza Catalunya feel that there is something missing.
Plaza Catalunya, Barcelona
as seen from the Apple Store
I look at Taksim Square in Istanbul, or Tahrir Square in Cairo and wish there was something in the middle, not just people. We talked with my friend then that in cities of developing countries or communist countries, one is not exposed to much public art unless it is a representation of a leader, and that all you see in a public square is people.
But then for those unlike me who don't have a western education and outlook and nothing to really to complain about, these squares, the only places for populations to gather and express themselves—where they only see other people—may not be that bad. They sometimes come to conquer the White Whale, or sometimes to revolt to Captain Ahab, and what kind of monument could really help them have a better lives? Besides do we really need other phallic symbols to remind us of male domination?
I don’t think Freud was right in anything he theorized about women, but he did refer to “high achievement and acquisition of wealth as building monuments to our penises”. (Notice “our penises”, he is talking to men of course. Power to the People!)
Nowadays we are okay with seeing Jean Novel's design of Doha Tower, the tallest structure in Qatar which reminds one of a dick.
Male dominance is everywhere, and it doesn’t matter what ethnicity you have. It was only a natural balancing act that after the Doha Tower was completed in 2012, that the late British architect Dame Zaha Hadid, submitted her design for the 2022 World Cup Stadium in Qatar, shaped just like a vagina. And so many still object! It is okay to have penises as structures, but no, to a brilliant design of a stadium shaped like vulva?
In October of 2015, during FIAC (Foire International d’Art Contemporain), the Ambassador of Egypt in Paris, attended the unveiling of Milène Guermont’s Phares—a female artist’s rendition of a pyramid—which by the way I loved, being hollow and female, with heartbeat and all—right next to the Luxor Obelisk in Place de la Concorde.
This Egyptian obelisk was once sent to Paris by the rulers of Egypt back in the day, from the Luxor Temple where its twin still remains. Meanwhile, outside of Paris, in Versailles, Dirty Corner, by Anish Kapoor—a British Artist with Indian and Jewish roots, a sculpture which was dubbed the Queen’s Vagina— had been vandalized again and again. As he himself recently said in an interview, people are not used to seeing the female anatomy in public art, and are scared of it perhaps, whereas dicks everywhere are accepted despite your political, religious and cultural views without perhaps being aware of it.
In conclusion, I am thinking: Is this Penis Envy as Freud said? All this ranting about obelisks, phallic structures which people are okay with, yet why on earth do people object to a giant symbolic vagina sculpture, or a soccer stadium shaped like vulva? No. It is about demanding to have your accepted place, equally, in the public realm, and not as a display of aesthetics but as a symbol of power. We should be able to talk about this. And I can write about it. It is more like when in the male dominated utopian future described in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, where women are not allowed anything, not even to write, the narrator Offred says “The pen between my fingers is sensuous, alive almost, I can feel its power, the power of the words it contains. Pen Is Envy…”