By Kevin L. Jones, KQED
In the suburban city of San Leandro, a 55-foot-tall statue of a naked woman dancing at a local technology park has turned a few heads since it was unveiled last Tuesday — especially at a nearby BART station, where the statue can be seen from the train platform. But despite reports, representatives from the group that installed the statue say it’s not as controversial as some may say.
The 13,000-pound, five-story steel mesh statue Truth Is Beauty, by local sculptor Marco Cochrane, was unveiled Oct. 18 to a crowd of hundreds at the San Leandro Tech Campus. Days later, the Associated Press reported that the statue was “stirring controversy,” but besides the commuters that were quoted, few have protested publicly since the statue was installed.
Some outrage was expressed when plans for the statue were announced, in 2015. The San Leandro Times received about four letters railing against the statue, including one from 79-year-old resident Gerry Isham (a woman who was repeatedly and incorrectly identified as a man by the press) that had the delicious quote, “Truth is beauty, but tacky is forever.”
“I really don’t think there is that much controversy,” San Leandro Times editor Jim Knowles said. “I think people got a bad impression from a photo that ran. The photo was if the statue when it was out in the desert during Burning Man, when you could see it a hundred miles away. It just stood over everything and didn’t give an accurate picture of what it really looked like.”
“It was a bigger controversy at the beginning, when people were first hearing about it,” Westlake Urban managing director Gaye Quinn said. “Then, as we were able to unpack the message behind the art, then it really started to resonate with people. We knew the controversy was lessening when women on Facebook started changing their profile pictures to shots of Truth Is Beauty.”
The message behind Truth Is Beauty to which Quinn refers is embodied by the question engraved in the statue’s base: “What would the world be like if women were safe?”
Cochrane first debuted the statue in 2013 at Burning Man, as part of a trio of sculptures named The Bliss Project. Inspired by the abduction and rape of a neighborhood friend when he was a child, Cochrane says on his website that the project was intended to “de-objectify women and inspire men and women to take action to end violence against women, thus allowing both women and men to live fully and thrive.”
“I believe the world is out of balance and that we need to listen to women’s voices and understand their intent,” Cochrane said. “They do not speak up as often as men. I believe that one of the reasons for this is the systemic violence against women that has been present throughout history.”
Quinn came in contact with Cochrane last year while on a search for artwork that would help her company, Westlake Urban, fulfill its deal with the city of San Leandro to include public art in its development of the San Leandro Tech Campus. A friend of hers who regularly attended Burning Man tipped her off to Cochrane’s statue and, though it was in pieces the first time she saw it in his art studio on Treasure Island, it had a profound impact on her.
“She was just body parts — her head was over there on a shelf, her torso was on a giant rack, her feet were somewhere else. It was quite an experience,” Quinn said. “[But] you could see the artistry of it, even when it was in pieces. The elegance of her architecture, the structural design, the wire mesh, her skin… It’s exquisite.”
Cochrane was adamant that the message stay with the statue. After hearing several stories of sexual assault from local community members, Quinn’s company not only complied, they further translated it into 10 different languages — the 10 most commonly spoken languages in San Leandro.
“What people don’t realize is that San Leandro is the fifth most diverse city in the country. I think they speak 30 languages in the schools,” Quinn said. “After hearing stories from so many women, we realized that the message was the reason for the art, and we needed to tell that story.”
It took 18 months for the statue to be installed. As it stands now, the city has received no complaints about the statue, and Sbeydeh Walton, San Leandro’s communications and community relations director, said officials couldn’t take action against it anyway.
“It’s privately owned by Westlake Urban and is on private land, and was purchased with private funds,” Walton said. “If people complain to us, there’s not much to complain about because we don’t own it.”