|Detail from "Boy with Frog" installation|
I don't think context is everything in the case of "Boy with Frog," but I now realize that, actually, it's far more interesting and suggestive than the sculpture alone.
One can say that the "Boy with Frog" subverts, through its subject matter and materials, the tradition of monumental marble public sculpture in Italy. But more simply it subverts this tradition far more thoroughly in another way: it is not a public sculpture.
It is a private sculpture, commissioned by François Pinault, displayed in one of the most prominent public spaces of Venice. It is a part of Pinault's massive and influential collection of contemporary art. Pinault also owns the art auction house of Christie's.
If people can debate the merit of the sculpture itself, there can be little debate about the work's value. That is, market value. We are reminded of that quite literally 24 hours a day. By the armed(!) guard stationed at the "Boy's" side while the Punta della Dogana is open; by the protective case that surrounds it after hours.
In contrast, say, to the Mona Lisa, whose fame (and value) long pre-dated her special security measures, Charles Ray's "Boy with Frog" entered the world with its security apparatus intact. The security insists upon (one could argue creates) the sculpture's worth right from the get-go. Which is what leads me to suggest that "Boy with a Frog" be considered not as sculpture but as installation.
The fact is, that armed guard and that large protective box are as integral to the work as the frog itself. (The boxing of the sculpture each evening and its unboxing each morning are as ceremonial, in their own their own small way, as the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace.) It is impossible to see the work without either the one or the other--and to ignore either guard or protective box is to miss what I now think are the most suggestive aspects of the work.
"Boy with Frog" as installation is an exemplary work of contemporary art precisely because of the way it foregrounds (among other things):
--the privatization of public space, and public works, and public welfare, that is occurring throughout the West. (Venice's Carnevale itself, to cite a fairly innocuous example, is now run by a private company.)
--the way in which the market value of a work of art is manipulated from the very outset by those who have the most to gain (quite literally) from it.
--the way in which private interests require the constant surveillance of public space. (Imagine the auction house value of a sculpture displayed for years on such a prime Venetian spot.)
You can see more on this sculpture here: http://veneziablog.blogspot.com/2011/05/whats-that-boy-doing-here.html