Forbidden Fruit




Forbidden Fruit: Sally Clarke and Brenda Factor's Figs In Space



When given a full-scale plaster cast of Michelangelo's David, Queen Victoria was said to be shocked: not just by the size of the unexpected gift, but by its prominent genitalia. Presented by the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1857, it was swiftly dispatched to the South Kensington Art Museum and its offending parts concealed by a hand-crafted fig leaf.

Whether or not this tale is true (for Victoria was supposed to have been sexually daring for her time), it raises some interesting ideas for consideration.  The concealment of nudity, and thus sexuality, has been a common theme in Christian and secular mythology from Antiquity to Victoria's reign - and beyond.  From the stitched leaves worn by Adam and Eve to the leaf coverings applied to the Vatican's Belvedere Statues, fig leaves have become a popular metaphor for virtue and modesty in the face of knowledge and eventual ruin.

Sydney duo Sally Clarke and Brenda Factor first explored ideas about concealment in their collaborative work Great Movements in Art (2001).  Created for the Tactile Art Award at Object Galleries, Customs House, on Circular Quay, it responded to the exhibition theme of 'vision-impairment' via codes and symbols in art history.  Combining their backgrounds in art (Clarke) and design (Factor), the pair created three oversized pink inflatables in the shape of fig leaves as a metaphor for sexuality and its repression. When activated, the figs inflated and then deflated to reveal iconographic images upon the wall supporting them: a smoking pipe, a hare and an apple.  Intended to be touched and squeezed by visitors to the exhibition, the fleshy pink leaves humorously suggested elaborate coverings as well as the sexual organs they were intended to conceal.

Speaking about their project, Clarke and Factor have described the motif of the fig leaf as the earliest form of 'pixelation': intended to conceal, it instead focuses our gaze on the forbidden.  By inverting the relationship of leaf to body, the work draws attention to the censoring function it performs.  At the same time, the leaf itself becomes a sexualised object, inviting desire and fantasy.  Made larger than life, Clarke and Factor's work draws attention to the 'cover-up' perpetuated through art history and in everyday life.

In their second collaborative project, originally produced for the 2002 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, Clarke and Factor have created three new inflatables in the shape of fig leaves.  Absurdly large, and suspended in space within the vast Turbine Hall of Sydney's Powerhouse Museum, they create a spectacle at once extraordinary and provocative.  Their expanding and contracting pink forms, in turn suggestive of revelation and concealment, also teasingly suggest states of hardness and softness - or arousal and flaccidity.

Despite its playfulness, Clarke and Factor's project is underscored by a more sober investigation of public attitudes toward sex and morality.  Of relevance to the Australian gay and lesbian community, for which censorship is an ongoing issue, it draws attention to issues of marginalisation and silence in the face of public scrutiny.  By exposing things that frequently remain hidden from view, Figs in Space gives visibility and voice via a popular and widely accessible visual motif.


Rachel Kent 2002


Text copyright: Sally Clarke, Brenda Factor and the author.