Those who have snuck a lunch at the canteen of the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) might have noticed the giant Greek sculpture in the foyer.
Backed against the slanted windows, it depicts a muscular man, flanked by two smaller figures, under attack from sea serpents and writhing in agony.
In past centuries, Laocoön and His Sons would have been prominently displayed at the art institution. These days, it’s in the corner, looking battered.
“It’s a marker of the school’s history and the radical stance that the students had,” says artist Sarah Pierce.
For centuries, Laocoön and His Sons played a central role in how art was taught at art colleges and academies around the world, ;including at the different iterations of schools that became what is now known as NCAD.
This plaster-cast Laocoön was given to the college, which at the time was the Dublin Society Drawing School, in 1790 by David La Touche Junior, scion of a prestigious banking family, says Donna Romano, the librarian at NCAD.
(Her main source is John Turpin’s History of the National College of Art and Design, she said.)
It was part of a collection of casts and friezes that grew from the mid-18th century onwards, collected when the well-to-do were doing the Grand Tour, and then donated or sold to the college.
“Back then, they were acquiring casts for teaching purposes, because models were difficult to come by […] and they were expensive,” she said.
“What I found interesting […] is that the school was looking particularly for plaster copies that weren’t too finished. They wanted them where the business and materials involved in the casting process were still there,” she said.
That’s so that people could learn about the processes involved in creating the piece. “There’s so much focus in art college on process, not just on the finished work,” she said.
The sculpture had pride of place anywhere it was on display, including what some considered the best exhibition space in Dublin on Hawkins Street, which had a glass ceiling, she said.
“It was used in the classroom but also on display, I suppose, throughout the 19th century,” she said.
A Change of Place
The Laocoön‘s place in the college today is very different.
“On an everyday basis, student interaction with it is minimal,” says Muiriosa Guinan, president of the student union, who studies sculpture at the college.
When students do interact with it, it’s mostly around social events, she said. “You might find some party hats on it, or some streamers, or some glitter, or make-up, depending on the time of year.”
On 8 March, the sculpture had a black bin bag with a white-lightning strike thrown over it, to mark support for the movement to repeal the 8th amendment. A battered foot poked out from the bottom of the bin bag.
As Guinan tells it, the statue is treated without much dignity. “But it has become a sense of playful, kind of expression for the students,” she said.
The Laocoön‘s evolution or downfall, depending on where you are standing, can be dated back to the middle of the 20th century.
“The Laocoön is really connected to the history at NCAD in terms of a shift that happened in the 1970s,” says Pierce, who put together an exhibition around the sculpture back in 2012.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were rumblings of discontent around the curriculum with its continued emphasis on life drawing and drawing from models.
“Students had to sit with easels and draw, like pastiches, of the Laocoön, and it was part of a classical history,” she said. “That’s how art was taught.”
For students at the time, the Laocoön symbolised what they wanted to escape from. “It symbolised a really oppressive side of art teaching,” she said. “What it meant to be in the academy.”
They wanted out with the old academic style and Greek sculpture, in with contemporary art, the modernists, newer artists like Pablo Picasso.
In the early 1970s, some of the students trashed the Laocoön and the friezes. “Basically, they were vandalised in a kind of symbolic very destructive gesture,” says Pierce.
Some called it a protest, others called it vandalism and a step too far, she said. “The oral history around that is kind of sketchy,” she says.
That’s the reason that the Laocoön looks so smashed up, even today.
When Pierce researched the history, she was interested in whether it was a unplanned burst of violence, or coordinated: “It seems like it was spontaneous and that it actually really divided the student body.”
Its Place Today
Many NCAD students today would have no idea what the history behind the sculpture is, and that there was a time that if you went to art school, you would be sitting in a chair with charcoal in front of the Laocoön, says Pierce.
But while some might suggest that the old artwork could do with a more dignified display, Pierce thinks that the concourse is the right place for it.
“What I think is really nice about it is it’s displayed in the student union […] and it’s kind of there as a foible, it’s sort of somewhat laughed at,” she said.
In her exhibition, she moved it from the student union into a gallery, and her idea was to give it a moment where it would be an artwork again. She didn’t clean it up. She left the dirt and the grime and the gum.
“The idea for me was to see it, not in its glory, but as a used and abused figure,” she said. It’s broken down and in bad shape, but she likes that it has been co-opted.
Pierce says that it would be sad to her if it were destroyed by the students, or moved out of the student union, where the fact that it is treated like a piece of furniture has it’s own radical symbolism, she said.
Romano, the librarian, says that the students who are clued in probably also appreciate the original symbolism of the statue.
The sculpture shows the contorted figures of the Trojan priest of Apollo and his sons under attack by sea serpents sent by Poseidon, because they warned the city of Troy against accepting the infamous wooden horse from the Greeks.
“I think this whole idea of concealing realities, of holding back truths, of poor communication […] is quite resonant within a student population that is very active in the political scene,” says Romano.
Romano says that those who run the college don’t see it as theirs, in a way. “I think it’s always been seen as … it was brought into the college for the students, so it belongs to the students. It’s not perceived of as a precious item,” she said.
It’s not like the immaculate, polished cast of the Laocoön in the Crawford Gallery in Cork, she said. “Here it’s just seen as one of many resources for the students to work from.”
Guinan, the student union president, sees it in a different way too: as a testament to the role of students at a college like NCAD.
“It’s a testament to them being active members in their education and saying that they are not simply here to consume the course but are here to start conversations and to really engage,” she said.
The college would face a lot of criticism if they were to throw it out, or hide it, or make it pristine again – but they don’t embrace it’s new form, either, she said.
“It’s more of a gentle reminder of the power of criticism than anything else,” she said.