Lifesaver_brunnen_duisburg

Lifesaver Fountain is a sculpture by Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely which was finished/installed between 1991-1993 in Duisberg, Germany.  The central element of the fountain–the great phantasmagoric pigeon with the woman clinging to it–is largely the work of Niki de Saint Phalle.  The architectural elements—the plinth and the structural stability, come from Jean Tinguely.

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Niki de Saint Phalle was the daughter of a French count who came from a family of bankers. During the Great Depression, the count’s personal fortune was wiped out, and he was forced to come to the United States to manage the American branch of the family bank.  Niki’s upbringing was thus split between America and France.  She was thrown out of Brearley for painting fig leafs on campus statues red.  She was a model and a housewife, before entering the arts with controversial statues and architectural depictions of women.

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Critics argue about the bird figure in this fountain, asserting that it is an angel or a guruda or a firebird, but just look at the face! This is clearly a pigeon, albeit an unusually powerful and colorful one.  It is a humorous juxtaposition, since pigeons are usually drab birds which mess up statues instead of brilliantly colored public art in their own right.

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The lifesaver statue is 7.2 meters tall (nearly 23 feet) and it moves to the left and right thanks to the ingenuous plinth.  Its undiminished color steams from the fact that it is made of polyester and teflon over steel (although industrial waste and other discarded items are also a part of the composition).  The bird figure is clearly a larger than life savior-figure, but it is less clear what the great colorful pigeon humanoid is saving the colorful and heavily contoured woman clinging to its breast from.  Is this a statement about rescuing oneself from patriarchy and industrialized society through the power of art?  Or is it about the exultant power of imagination to lift us from any circumstance?  Whatever the case, the “Lifesavior” certainly rescues the most common urban bird from drabness and it brings a smile to one’s face as well.