Picture this: Queen Elizabeth calls. She asks you to help design a gigantic new sculpture to debut in London on New Year's Eve, Year 2000. It's to be a massive, hollow sculpture of a persona, sort of a theme park to the human body that lets visitors zip through on escalators, exploring its parts, peering out of its eyes.
And the queen wants to know: Should it be male or female? Or something else?
Or, picture this: A U.S. West Coast PR man calls. He asks you to help design a "Statue of Responsibility" in California, aimed at providing a philosophical balance to the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast.
Should it be male or female? Or something else?
No, no. These are not questions from one of those sexy - but - shallow quizzes in Cosmo or Playboy.
The London sculpture is already under construction by that bastion of Western civilization, the British government. Tapping national lottery money, Parliament is helping to pay for a $1.3 billion, steel - and - fiberglass "Millennium Dome" that will house a seated, reclining or kneeling human figure. At 320 feet long, the statue would be longer than the Statue of Liberty is tall.
The California statue is being pushed by a conservative who is convinced that there's a "cancer of the soul" in America today, that the balance between liberty and responsibility in America has swung way too far in the libertine direction.
In both cases, the statues are meant to be potent new symbols, spiritual guideposts pointing humanity's way to the values of the 21st century.
And both have sparked lively debates over what physical form such soul - defining beacons should take. Suggestions so far: male, female, androgynous, transvestite, two - sided with features of both sexes or not human at all.
In England, current thinking is that the human figure might be female, a mammoth, hollow human body, with visitors entering through the back at waist level, zipping around inside on high - tech "travelators," catching a killer view of London through her eyes, then exiting through her right leg.
This has spurred some ridicule.
"I don't at all like the sound of [it]," huffed London opinion writer Paul Johnson in the Spectator. "The gigantic statue of a woman that visitors can get into. I can already envisage the cartoons and jokes."
The London press is already calling the whole project "Mandy's Folly," making fun of Peter Mandelson, the government minister in charge.
Sex still a question
Undeterred, the sculpture's backers continue happily debating its final form. "The sex or non - sex of the figure is definitely still in the melting pot," says Rodney Watson, of the British Department of Culture, Media and Sport in London.
How do American thinkers react to this? Not the way you might think.
Their average thought is that, because gender is becoming more irrelevant every day, the figure should be neither male nor female.
This could get depressing.
"Make it hermaphrodite with sexual characteristics of both sexes," says University of Maryland art professor Terry Gips. The symbolism would be perfect: "What we're discussing is our post - biological consciousness, where one's gender is not necessarily fixed."
The Internet's to blame, she says: "Already today, people go online wearing a mask of another gender, another age. Men masquerading as women and vice versa. Plus, with all the familiar prosthetic devises we have - pacemakers, artificial arms - we may not think of ourselves as cyborgs, but in a sense, we are.
"I personally don't think our flesh and blood bodies will go away, but we will have added extensions of the body and simulations, or online extensions of our personalities."
L She pauses. "The British will never go for this, will they?"
A new approach
Goucher College psychology professor Rick Pringle would make female: "Wouldn't it be a nice time to question the male as the standard? It's a wonderful opportunity to mark the tone of the millennium by shifting gears to let a woman symbolize the new era."
Authoritarian male deities are something of a recent fad anyway, he says. "Centuries ago, there were cultures around the Pacific Rim that had powerful female deities," Pringle says. "Women were much more powerful, and the cultures were peaceful as a consequence."
"Make it transsexual," suggests futurist Gerald Celente of Rhinebeck, N.Y., author of "Trends 2000" (Warner Books, 1997). "It has to reflect the global age, so maybe it shouldn't be a human body at all; that's pretty narcissistic. Maybe it should be bigger than just human. We need responsibility to all living things."
So what image would that be?
"Make it a perfect picture of the human soul."
OK, sculptors get going.
A different view of the London figure comes from Glenn E. Good, psychology professor at University of Missouri at Columbia and president of an American Psychological Association division studying men and masculinity in society.
"I hope the new millennium will reflect the best qualities of both men and women, the nurturance and sensitivity associated with women and the goal - oriented character of masculinity."
But what kind of statue?
"If I were the sculptor, I'd maybe have one human figure with the front half of a male and the front half of a female put together into one being."
The issue of race
An entirely different dilemma is raised by Debra Rosenfelt, a professor of women's studies at the University of Maryland. What race should the millennium sculpture be? "If the sculpture has literal facial features, that issue will have to be resolved."
She has a solution: "My daughter, who's 11, just designed a stained - glass balcony scene for Romeo and Juliet for her sixth grade. She used mirrored glass for their skin, so whoever looks at it sees their own skin tone. I thought that was wonderful."
Race is a question raised over the California responsibility statue, too.
"A statue of a person would be fraught with hazard," says the Rev. Cecil Murray, of the First AME Church of Los Angeles, one of its backers. "Should it be white, brown, red, green? By 2050, America will be a nation of minorities, so we must find a way to indicate in symbol a super - person, a non - person, an un-person."
Michael Levine, the PR man who dreamed up the responsibility statue, won't say what he thinks it should look like.
"I want people to submit ideas," he says, "to spark a prairie fire of dialogue on this subject."
It's the symbolism that counts, he says. "Something is very, very wrong with this nation. The cancer in America today is not financial or economic, it's a cancer of the soul. And it's metastasizing very fast.
"The '60s movements declared war against standards," he goes on, "created a sense of relativism, a thinking of who's to know, who's to judge? That you couldn't say that a guy playing a kazoo wasn't better than somebody playing Mozart. Not everybody buys that."
In Miami, there's a futurist who a decade ago shed his given name and now calls himself "FM 2030" because it symbolizes a pretty good time in the coming millennium. He thinks the whole idea of building statues in London or California is, well, a bit 20th century.
"I can't help being amused. I think the people who emphasize responsibility are often the very people who least respect it, who lean the most on deities and ancient prophets, traditions and orthodoxies, the paternalism of church and family, rather than taking responsibility for making their own decisions.
"We will grow more autonomous in the future; people will accept responsibility more than any other time in history, be less dependent on church, family, leadership, the state."
Because of that, he says, "The depiction of the human body itself is an anachronism.
"Well before 2030 we will have developed entirely new kinds of bodies that transcend the biological human body - infinitely durable, immortal, sexier than anything we have today."
Maybe FM 2030 has the right idea for both London and California: "I think building a statue is very irresponsible, very unenlightened and backward.
"Responsible people don't need icons."
! Pub date: 5/30/98