In British English, “slag” has a few different meanings. Most literally, it means the refuse from mining or metal smelting operations, a mixture of castoff materials like silicates, shale, and coal dust. In a more vernacular setting, the term can refer to a “coarse or dissipated girl or woman,” according to the venerable Collins English Dictionary. A huge new public artwork in Northumberland is both at the same time.
“Northumberlandia,” a 1,300-foot-long earthwork of a curvy woman created by the Banks Mining Group, Viscount Matthew Ridley, and landscape architect Charles Jencks, was molded from a 1.5-million-ton slag heap taken from the Shotton coal mine. She’s the largest human earthwork in the world, and her breasts (which feature walkway spirals) rise 100 feet into the air. The woman is traced with white pathways, reminiscent of the antique earthwork the Uffington White Horse.
Unfortunately, “Northumberlandia,” which officially opens to the public September 3, hasn’t struck the same chord with its audience as the graceful horse. Jencks’s installation has been unkindly nicknamed the “fat slag” by locals, taking full advantage of the double entendre. Bob Downer, the chief executive of the Blagdon Estate on which the work was created, admitted to the Daily Mail that some critics had misinterpreted the work as a pagan symbol while broadcaster Melvyn Bragg noted that “walking over a reclining woman” might not be to “everyone’s tastes.”
Despite the feminist critiques, the privately funded earthwork might prove a boon for Northumberland residents. The project’s planners hope it will attract 200,000 visitors annually and bring attention to the area. The artist sees no problem with what he considers to be a humanist gesture: “I don't believe it is demeaning to women, men or the human species as a whole; in fact it celebrates all of that,” he said. “I profoundly believe that, given time, people will not find any offense in this, and will grow to love her.”