If you had to pick one word – which isn’t easy, among descriptors like alive, ambitious, incredible, inspired, human and heartfelt – that might be it. Stunning.
Because the 55-foot statue that rose from the desert dust at Burning Man last month stuns onlookers with girth, curves and courage. Because the pose stuns with its vulnerability, strength and sexiness. Because the second steel structure in a trilogy stuns with its engineering (some 10,000 hours’ worth) and its electricity (wait till you see the 3,000-LED light show). Because the statue, named “Truth Is Beauty,” stuns by way of the soul within it, and its rough reminder of the way our species treats women.
Thousands of Instagram photos attest to the hold it took on viewers. San Francisco Chronicle blogger Mark Morford described it as “the best thing on the playa this year, day or night, up close or far away, lit up or just a hot mesh in the sun.”
The piece’s first incarnation – as a statue no more than 18 inches high – came locally. Its creator, Marco Cochrane, lived and worked in Monterey for four years and showed the small clay version with a series of others for a 2007 Pacific Grove Art Center exhibition The Spirit of Femininity After the Revolution.
The inspiration, though, came much earlier, when Cochrane’s childhood friend was abducted and raped.
“[The rapist] must not have realized she was a human, that she was a real person,” he says. “I’ve been trying to solve this my entire life through my art.”
He sought to express a being, a grace and a personality more than a shape – “the little things that make them who they are.” He found his model in the now-shuttered Blockbuster Video next to the Pacific Grove Trader Joe’s. And he let her, Monterey native Jamie Deja Solis, pick the poses for his pieces.
For “Truth Is Beauty,” she chose a stretching moment she remembered in front of the mirror, finally embracing the atypical height that had always made her self-conscious. “He asked me, ‘When did you truly feel beautiful?’” Solis says. “I was learning to self-love.”
At the base of the statue in Black Rock Desert, a single question written in hundreds of languages asked onlookers to consider a world where that kind of comfort, freedom and security were realized: “What would the world be like if all women were safe?” Safe to be themselves, to be open and affirming, to be beautiful.
“Women always tell me, ‘I’m safe,’” says Cochrane, now based in Mill Valley. “But can you walk down street and look a man in eye and smile?’ ‘No way,’ they say.”
They held talks and distributed 10,000 wristbands with a picture of the sculpture and the words, “We stand with you,” starting right there at Burning Man. There are no available stats on sexual assault on the playa, but anecdotes are all too easy to come by. And the reporting is complicated by the lack of rape kits to collect forensic evidence in Black Rock City.
“It was weirdly magical to meet so many folks,” Solis says. “Sometimes it was making a woman know she can be beautiful, that she didn’t need to force it. Other times it was telling her partner to stay present when she’s feeling open. Men often don’t allow the vulnerability to be open and truly share. They should be able to feel that and express it.”
Now an international tour is in the offing, with which Cochrane will continue asking people to look at body language more than body parts. “If you’re a man and you’re straight, you’ve been stunned by a woman before,” Cochrane says. “But there is a real person living in that body. Deja is a regular person. The statute is intended to be stunningly beautiful, to knock your socks off, but remind you there’s a real person there, and she’s safe.”
Maybe most stunning of all: That we need to be reminded one in three women has been sexually assaulted. But “Truth Is Beauty” also reminds us, even ugly truths can be stunningly beautiful.