Letter from London

Letter from London: Plinth of Thieves

Effigy of David Beckham temporarily installed on the empty plinth in 2002

Effigy of David Beckham temporarily installed on the empty plinth in 2002

Good news! We’re living in “a golden age of public art,” characterized by “a change in art’s very nature, from an aesthetic, spiritual and intellectual function to a principally social one.” Woo hoo! What a relief, eh?

In London, public art means either the Turbine Hall commissions in Tate Modern or the famous Fourth Plinth—the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square used as a site for public art commissions for a few years now. Since the road that runs in front of the gallery was pedestrianized several years ago, the area has become a catch-all public space: amateur artists sketch out copies of Botticelli paintings, opera singers blast out an aria or two, people balance stuff on their noses and rattle buckets at the audience afterward. You might have seen the square occupied with hordes of unaccountably ecstatic people waving Union Jacks on the announcement of London’s hosting of the Olympics in 2012. It’s that sort of place, the city’s town square, center of innumerable celebrations of the various ethnicities that constitute London, meeting point for protesters and stag nighters and neon-backpacked Italian school groups.

The plinth’s prominence as the only one of the four not occupied by an equestrian bronze of a hero of war or empire made it an iconoclastic presence in this locus of national celebration. Previous commissions have aimed to “subvert” the historical resonance of the place: Rachel Whiteread displayed a flipped-over resin cast of the plinth itself, Marc Quinn showed a marble cast of thalidomide victim Alison Lapper, and Mark Wallinger put a life-size human figure on the plinth’s edge—a contemporary Christ with crown of thorns. For all of these artists, the plinth offered perhaps their most public venue and certainly made their work the most photographed of any they had produced up to then (Wallinger’s proposed huge horse at Ebbsfleet will certainly supersede that).

But as with so much public art, any subversive intent played second fiddle to civic demands founded on specific ideas about what public art is for. The question of more relevance, it seems to me, is what the public for art is. This is particularly relevant in the light of the latest commission for the fourth plinth: Antony Gormley’s One and Other, the sculptor’s proposal to allow members of the public to apply to occupy the plinth on their own, for an hour at any time of day, starting this summer for a total stretch of a hundred days.

The choice of Gormley as the winner of the commission is perhaps not surprising, as he is the creator of the UK’s most popular (ie, most reproduced, most pilloried, most parodied) public sculpture, The Angel of the North (which is, sadly, far better cared for than the unloved Stonehenge). The other submissions—from Tracey Emin, Bob and Roberta Smith, and Anish Kapoor—felt like truncated versions of more successful works by these artists in other contexts. Only Jeremy Deller’s proposal—a real burnt-out car destroyed in a civilian attack in Iraq—would have had a genuinely iconoclastic effect (referencing the display of spoils of war found on Roman triumphal columns that are the aesthetic forebears of Nelson’s Column in the center of the square). Gormley, who has a slightly awkward position within the canon of contemporary British art (as befits a supremely popular artist, he and his legions of followers feel as though they’re backing the underdog, and constantly bang on about it) has hit upon an idea of such perfect congruence with (post-) Blairite notions of what art should provide for the public that the sound of hands slapping foreheads in consternation was heard ringing from Parliament as soon as his idea was announced.

The way Gormley’s proposal will work is explained in some detail on the Fourth Plinth website, on which this spectacularly hubristic game plan is laid out:

[Gormley] is asking the people of the UK to occupy the empty Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square in London, a space normally reserved for statues of Kings and Generals, in an image of themselves, and a representation of the whole of humanity (!!!). [triple exclamation points mine]

Only a culture so profoundly in love, as the UK is, with the process of celebrification could endorse a proposal that equates mere self-expression with art. The project description is full of phrases that are begging for qualifying air quotes: “Participants will be picked at random, chosen from the thousands who enter, to represent the entire population of the UK” [italics mine]. Gormley has the temerity to suggest that he has been the victim of press “snobbery”; surely pomposity of that Meatlovian scale is crying out for some leavening criticism. The use of the political buzzword “participant” shows how neatly the rhetoric of contemporary art has, since 1997, dovetailed with the rerouting of political discourse towards an emphasis on “openness,” “transparency,” and “interactivity” while actually being none of those things. The suggestion of the term participant is that the person has an active role in the creation of the work of art, whereas the truth of much participatory contemporary art is that the participant simply becomes the medium for the artist to express whatever it is he or she is expressing (usually a toothless critique of the patron rubber-stamped by same).

For Gormley’s project, as for much contemporary political discourse, language is bent to purpose. That dreaded term empowerment is so beloved of official arts bodies when angling for funding is dragged in, but what does it mean here? And to what extent is this, in Gormley’s words, “about the democratization of art”? It means that after what will certainly be a protracted screening process, members of the public, who have conflated exposure with success, will be allowed to spend an hour of their time gesticulating slightly out of earshot above the tinkling fountains and rumbling buses. Some of them will moon Nelson. Gormley and the subsidizing bodies will feel good about “democratizing” art and “empowering the public.” That all this is happening in the shadow of the National Gallery, one of the world’s best collections of painting (and free to enter), has a ring of embarrassment about it. We get the public art we deserve, I suppose.

  1. Laura says:

    That sounds like the most self-obsessed, self-absorbed, shameless, sycophantic, crass idea I’ve ever heard. Where do I sign up?

    What would you suggest for the fourth plinth, Ben?

    P.S. The title is genius.

  2. Tom Juneau says:

    Yop – public art’s flatulent rise and rise in the last decade and a half in Britain is totemic of New Labour. The insider, clubland deals between government and ‘edgy’ and slick corporate galleries is sprinkled with art’s equivalent of MSG: interactivity. No better exponent of this than the human-shaped vacuum Sir Anthony Gormley.

    I disagree that ‘we get what we deserve’. People are making decisions, politics is involved. Public art is up for sale!

  3. William Shaw says:

    Ben holds the British public in such magnificent contempt he’s sure they’ll all be mooning at Nelson and hoping their 60 minutes of fame will make them the next Jade Goody,

    I think that rather proves Antony Gormley’s point: that British art critics are a fearful bunch of snobs who are horrified at the idea of the lumpenproletariat getting anywhere near art.

  4. Ben Street says:

    Hi William –

    Thanks for your comment. Let me try and make my position on this a bit clearer. Although I admit it came across as such, I’m not meaning to be snobby about Gormley and his work.

    The problem that I have with such a project has nothing to do with the public’s involvement – there are plenty of examples of participative contemporary artists that would provide intelligent, thoughtful and creative responses to a space such as Trafalgar Square. To take one example, Allora and Calzadilla (http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/alloracalzadilla/index.html) would certainly have put forward a more interesting proposal without the grandiloquence and stated ‘universality’ of One and Other.

    It’s certainly true (to paraphrase Gormley) that a strain of contemporary art has been moving in the direction of participation of late. What is also true – and speaking as an educator – is that the public can, and do, engage with the complexities of art all the time through sadly under-funded museum education programmes that allow a deeper and more sustained relationship with art.


  5. William Shaw says:

    I’m reserving judgement on the piece, but having lived in London through the 1980s and most of the 90s, when public art crashed to a halt after the demise of the GLC, you have no idea how thrilling it is that these things have been on the move again.

    Public art always exists in an uneasy space. Governments want there to be an instrumental purpose for it; artists like to see themselves as existing outside purposeful agendas.

    It’s easy to deride the language that is created when art rubs up against the government bureaucracy that commissions it – but when the art community bristles against words like democratisation and empowerment I believ they’re falling into the trap of appearing elitist and self-serving.

  6. Ben Street says:

    Good point. That ‘liminal’ (forgive the hop into artspeak) space between governmental or civic requirements and creative freedoms does produce some awkward situations. The latest piece on the plinth, by Thomas Schutte, for example, was (I think) originally intended to be a kind of modernist perch for pigeons, its clean lines and industrial colours gradually spattering with guano, until it was gently pointed out that pigeons are no longer welcome in Trafalgar Square.

    The thing is, there’s a bit of a lack of imagination in choosing AG: it would be nice to see commissioning bodies backing someone who asks harder questions while remaining accessible in form – the Wallinger Christ was a great example of this, hugely popular and apposite to its location.

    Gormley has a point, though – to an extent – when he mentions the snobbery of British arts journalism. It’s not only purportedly ‘populist’ art that gets it, though: the critics were far more savage, even xenophobic, about the Bourriaud-helmed Altermodern show at Tate Britain, and tend to take umbrage with what they perceive as ‘pretentious’ conceptual art far more than someone like Gormley.

    As for the language, it’s something I tend to rail against on this blog a lot; the art world does have a problem with words, whether or not it is in contact with government bureaucracy. In that regard they have much in common. It’s a problematic discourse of (m)othered spaces and all that.

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