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Last Updated: Monday, 22 May 2006, 14:38 GMT 15:38 UK
Hirst statue unveiled in London
The Virgin Mother at the Royal Academy of Arts
The statue was cast specially for the Summer Exhibition
A 35ft-tall, 13-and-a-half-ton Damien Hirst statue revealing the insides of a pregnant woman has been unveiled at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

The Virgin Mother has layers removed on one side to reveal the foetus and the woman's skull, muscles and tissue.

The BBC News website was given first look at the statue, part of the gallery's Summer Exhibition, From Life.

Head of the exhibition Edith Devaney said: "It will be very interesting to see people's reactions."

The bronze statue, recalling Edgar Degas's Little Dancer, dominates the courtyard in front of the gallery, and is visible from Piccadilly where passers by stopped to look as a crane hoisted it into place on Monday.

"This is the first piece people encounter on the way into the exhibition, and it says everything about the theme," Ms Devaney told the BBC News website.

"I don't think people will be upset by it - I think it's still very beautiful. Because there is a baby involved, it is very life-affirming."

Some passers-by seemed taken aback by the new exhibit

The statue is the second edition of Hirst's The Virgin Mother - the first is on display in New York, with a third edition currently being cast.

The Royal Academy version took a year and a half to build, in 18 separate pieces, at a sculpture foundry in Gloucestershire.

Rungwe Kingdon, co-owner of the Pangolin Editions foundry, said it was one of the biggest bronzes in the world.

He told BBC News the statue would have been vulnerable to buckling at narrow points like the ankles, so a stainless steel structure hidden inside to support the weight of the bronze.

"All the effort was worth it," said Mr Kingdon. "Doesn't it look great in this courtyard? It sort of gives it scale."

I don't think anybody would say that it's pretty
Christal Wagner

There were mixed reactions from members of the public, with Maciej Zworski, from Berkeley in the US, calling it "gruesome" and "a little bit disturbing".

"It's courageous to put it right in the middle of the Royal Academy," he said, adding that the sight of it had made him enter the gallery.

Thomas Kuehn, from Frankfurt, Germany, said the statue was "cool" and also unexpected.

"We didn't expect Damien Hirst here - normally you see it at the Saatchi Gallery or Tate Modern - but having it here, you look at it more closely and more intensely."

But Christal Wagner, from California, said: "I don't think anybody would say that it's pretty.

"I wouldn't have it in my back yard," she added.

The Royal Academy of Arts' Summer Exhibition runs from 12 June to 20 August.

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