What’s a nice artwork like you doing on a plinth like this?

fourth plinth

We’ve seen the future, fellow Londoners, and we’re bored already. Yes, with the dawn of 2008 comes the unveiling of another set of proposals for artefacts with which to adorn the world’s most famous empty plinth. But although the coming weeks will, one may confidently predict, see earnest if laboured attempts to generate some requisite minimum of outrage over the nature of these proposals — already, we fear, legions of hacks are frantically Googling ‘what is art?’ in search of more dry kindling for their simulated fury — Fugitive Ink stands above all that, knowing, as we do, that outrage, however ersatz, is exactly what ‘art’ of this type seeks, both as validation and vindictation. Don’t feed the Art Establishment beast, children! Maybe if we ignore it, it will get bored and go away …

More to the point, though, complaining about the quality of, yawn, where was I, oh yes, the commissions is a distraction from the category mistake afflicting the entire Fourth Plinth project. Art, to cut the argument short, has no place on the Fourth Plinth. It isn’t just that bad art doesn’t belong there — art doesn’t belong there, full stop. Aside from anything else, placing anything atop the Fourth Plinth and expecting it to function as art — to be evaluated primarily in terms of its aesthetic qualities — pits one particular, rather specialised reading object against the force of the space in which it is situated. And, let’s face it, given resilient vitality of Trafalgar Square, let alone the relatively fragile condition of art, only one side is ever going to win that battle.

Genius loci, flanked by police and helicopters
Heaven knows why, but the ground now occupied by Trafalgar Square has always been a declamatory, ultimately contentious space. Assuming its present form only in about 1845, Trafalgar Square perches above Charing Cross, a low bluff rising above a wriggle in the slow-flowing Thames. The site of Charing Cross, for nearly two thousand years, has marked the boundary separating regal Westminster and the Palace of Whitehall from the demotic, turbulent, troublesome City of London. Earlier still, the area clearly meant something, although no one seems to know quite what, to those residents of Roman London who chose to entomb and revere their dead there. During the Civil Wars, the mews that had for a time occupied the spot were turned first into a barracks and parade-ground for Parliamentarian troops, then into a prison-camp for 4,500 captured Royalists. In 1647 the Parliamentarians also pulled down Eleanor of Castile’s funeral monument which had stood at Charing Cross since about 1290; a mere thirteen years later, it is pleasing to relate, several regicides were hanged, drawn and quartered on the same site. In 1675 Le Seur’s great statue of Charles I (cast 1633) was erected there, gazing down benignly towards Horse Guards, the Banqueting House and eternity. And here, ultimately, emerged the whole business of Trafalgar Square’s plinths and statues, born not of tired debates about ‘art’, but of serious stuff instead: life and death, legitimacy and rebellion, order and its catastrophic abdication. To have one’s image placed here meant something, and not necessarily something uncontroversial, either. Meanwhile statues reflected the reality of the world beyond their surfaces, not simply their own purported qualities. How long ago, somehow, all that now seems.

In the nineteenth century, the construction of the Square itself, which might have been projected to order and pacify this space, in fact conjured up the setting for more than a century of riots, spanning all species of discontent from the anti-unemployment demonstrations of the 1880s to the Poll Tax riot of 1990, as well as legions of other, often less violent but sometimes very large protests. Of course, there have also been celebrations, demonstrating the ability of the London mob to make its own, distinctive brand of fun — witness the tens of thousands who used to gather in Trafalgar Square on New Year’s Eve, all for the sake of admiring the dry fountains and boarded-up statues and occasionally pelting each other, festively, with empty bottles — or, occasionally, to fight over football results, miles from any football pitch.

Once upon a time, people gathered here to learn the results of the General Election. Now, instead, pigeons flock to the spot, hated and fed with equal devotion. Tourists pause to take in the spectacle. Statues of military heroes, a traitor and a trio of problematic kings look on, impassive. The natives, for their part, hardly notice Nelson’s tall column and its attendant lions, the crowds and noise, except to lament whatever’s gone wrong with the traffic. All the same, they tend to regard it as central to whatever one means, however vaguely, by ‘London’.

Here, then, is the space into which our elected mayor, Ken Livingstone, continues to inject many millions of pounds of someone else’s money, revising the Square’s layout, staging event after random minority-group-appeasing or sponsorship-driven event, in yet another of many attempts, if not to calm these acres, at least to harness their energy. And here, finally, is the site of that famous fourth plinth. Originally it was intended to carry a statue of William IV, but funds ran out and determination faltered. As the decades passed and proposals came and went, the plinth became a sort of monument to civic indecision. Historically barren, the plinth was at the same time assertively pregnant with symbolic force. Who, or what, could we trust to be placed there?

Unholy trinity
Civilised, irenic and even improving, art must, at some point, have seemed a plausible tool with which to hack through the Gordian knot and solve, at long last, the continuing problem of Trafalgar Square. Surely this would take the politics, and hence the sting, out of any eventual choice? Added to this was the proviso that the art works should only be temporary, so that even if they weren’t much good, it wouldn’t really matter. In about 1999, the Royal Academy of Arts managed to seize responsibility for placing something on the plinth, and went on to make three commissions before the infant Greater London Authority snatched back from its rival this entrancing, if hard-to-control, civic toy.

The RA’s selections were, to put it kindly, a mixed bag. The first, Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo, a smallish figure of Christ apparently moulded out of cheap synthetic bath-soap, was a wretched failure in conventional aesthetic terms, but was arguably redeemed by a viewing public who, flocking to the nearby Seeing Salvation and enlivened with the eye of faith, were able to adumbrate in this weak work testimony, however faint, of Christ’s fragile-looking yet firm persistence in a world that some believed, at the time, to be turning away from religious belief. (Two years is a long time in history, art-historical or otherwise.) Bill Woodrow’s Regardless of History, on the other hand, failed on every possible level, aesthetic as well as hermeneutic. It was made of nastily-patinated bronze and looked a bit like a big tree with its roots round some books. Few who saw it now remember it, which is perhaps just as well, as its combination of earnestness and dreariness was an experiment that does not invite, at least not with any sincerity, replication.

Monument, in contrast, by Rachael Whiteread, was harder to read, and remains marginally harder to dismiss. As usual, Whiteread’s solution to the problem confronting her was to order something to be cast in resin — in this case, a full-sized simulacrum of the plinth itself, so that the finished work hung above its model like a sort of ghost, or malfunctioning shadow. On a practical level, there was scope to admire both the technical skill behind the casting, and also, perhaps, Whiteread’s resourcefulness in funding the work herself. Better than anything else, though, Monument seemed to encapsulate the apparently unanswerable nature of the dilemma posed by the vacant, needy plinth, with the work’s blandness, its watery attractiveness and its self-referential non-meaning all summing up, somehow, failures of character (ours) as much as failures of art (ours, too).

Unfortunately, while art that said nothing didn’t really suit Trafalgar Square, neither did art that said something, because for some reason, whatever the art in question said invariably turned out, upon examination, to be something remarkably foolish. Bad artists often seem to think that by seeking to explain their bad art, they somehow make it better, but in fact the reverse is true. Here, for instance, is one of Mark Wallinger’s pronouncements about his depiction of Christ in Ecce Homo:

‘I wanted to show Him as an ordinary human being. Jesus was at the very least a political leader of an oppressed people and I think He has a place here in front of all these oversized imperial symbols.’

And yet as any plodding Sunday School pupil of our grandparents’ generation could have told him, Christ of course was very emphatically not a political leader, not even ‘at the very least’ (!), as the most cursory examination of the Easter story makes perfectly clear. What Wallinger is trying to say, more likely, is that it’s all right for him to flirt with danger by creating an image to which people might like for bad reasons (e.g. Christian faith) because in fact it really alludes instead to extremely good causes (e.g. ‘oppressed’ Palestinians, Irish republicans, arts types who’ve had their grants docked by that Philistine bitch Thatcher and her Blairite spawn, etc, etc) and is, hence, perfectly okay then. To which one can only say that while the folks at Fugitive Ink are no great fans of George IV, surely even his statue deserves a better counterpoint than that?

Pigeon Schütte
In any event, as mentioned above, the Greater London Authority soon decided they were better judges of art than the Royal Academicians, and started picking winners themselves.

First up, amongst the GLA’s commissions, was Mark Quinn’s statue of artist Alison Lapper. Lapper, a thalidomide survivor who was born without arms and with malformed legs, was depicted by Quinn as pregnant, nude — and, once again, apparently cast in synthetic bath-soap. We admit to having problems with this statue. By any sane standard, Lapper is an admirable figure whose life ought to be an inspiration to anyone who feels hemmed in, either by external or, for that matter, self-imposed limitations. Not all heroes, after all, win naval battles. But at the same time, when it comes to discussing portrait sculpture — which is surely what this was — there is a point where one has to distinguish between the subject of the portrait and the manner in which the subject is portrayed, understanding as one does so that a major failure of the latter need not imply criticism at any level of the former. And so it happened here. For no matter what one thought or thinks of Lapper herself, it was somehow distressing to see a naked, disabled, pregnant woman out in the rain and slushy snow, in the heat of the August sun and the chill of the early December dusk, being darkened with the grit of traffic and shat upon by pigeons.

And here the point about context re-emerges. In the V&A, perhaps, we might have contrasted Lapper’s ‘damaged’ body — contrasted it at some superficial level only, because, to reiterate, Quinn’s statue had a nasty waxy surface, and looked more cast than sculpted or modelled — with the superhuman perfection of some antique Venus. (This was, in fact, an experience Quinn had set up before, at the V&A a few years earlier, with some success.) But here, in Trafalgar Square, the context gnawed away at the bracingly didactic nature of this rather unsubtle work, which was to equate Lapper’s bravery with that of more conventional, if equally ‘damaged’ heroes. All those monarchs and military men were, after all, dressed for public display, for bad weather, for real or symbolic confrontation. Trafalgar Square was the right place for them. Lapper, in contrast, seemed manifestly unsuited, in her pathetic nakedness, to Trafalgar Square — perhaps even victimised by all those weary, uninterested passing glances, shot vaguely in her direction from wet pavements or the windows of buses stalled in 6 pm traffic. The work was disconcerting in exactly the way it wasn’t meant to be, dysfunctional in a way that seemed a pointlessly vicious metaphor for its subject’s disabilities.

And yet, to talk about Allison Lapper Pregnant in this manner — to compare it head-on with the other commemorative statuary in Trafalgar Square — is to discuss the work as if it were a functional item, constructed to commemorate someone and culpable if it fails. It is, however, something different: a work of art. Not for the first time, ‘art’ becomes at once an evasion and a get-out clause, a declaration of exceptionality and an admission of failure. And here, the problem afflicts the subject as much as the artist. Because Lapper’s alive and, God willing, will remain so for decades to come, because she seems such an impressive woman, there’s a understandable well-bred squeamishness when it comes to comparing her merits directly with those of Nelson, Havelock, Jellicoe; by the same token, to complain that Quinn’s statue is out of scale, executed in distractingly unpleasant materials, crudely formed and ill-judged compared with the other works in the Square, is to commit the awful faux pas of acting as if the work is just another statue. Quinn wants Lapper in the Pantheon, but also outside it — to be up there with the heroes, whilst simultaneously belittling their stature. It’s wilfully ‘controversial’, but also — in its advocacy of disability, femininity and art over strength, masculinity and military prowess — reassuringly safe. Unsatisfactory, even distressing at first, with familiarity the work began to look more than a little smug.

Much less, obviously, needs to be said about the work currently occupying the fourth plinth. Thomas Schütte’s Model for a Hotel does not look much like a model, and even less like a hotel. It is reminiscent, instead, of a very attractive toy certainly available in the United States circa Gerald Ford’s presidency, whereby various squares of brightly-coloured plastic could be linked into each other in order to concoct jaunty, abstract, impeccably Modernist forms. Oh, it’s pretty enough, but it connects with nothing in the Square. It will be forgotten a day or two after it has been winched away from the site; even after a few months in its setting, it looks distractingly bashed-about, dimmed and diminished by the world, and pigeons, surrounding it. ‘Is it art?’ Who cares? Schütte’s work says virtually nothing, and the one thing it does say — which is, in effect, a bland assertion that art has something to contribute to Trafalgar Square — fails to convince.

High Art, High Boredom Threshold
All of which brings us to the future, as revealed in the newly-published shortlist of forthcoming prospective occupants for the fourth plinth. At Fugitive Ink, we do have quite a soft spot for tradition, but frankly we could live without the tradition whereby the items atop the fourth plinth are invariably supplied by blue-riband-festooned pets of the Arts Establishment, doing the usual thing, just a bit bigger and more prominently than usual. Looking back over the list of previous winners, one gets a definite sense of someone pushing a ‘generate more signature style material please’ button — after which, amongst some clanking and grinding from the working parts, Mr Wallinger duly turned out some pseudo-topical but unfrightening exercise in social commentary, Mr Woodrow made something worthy but dull, Miss Whiteread made a cast, Mr Quinn explored biology and disability and Herr Schütte made something pretty but intellectually serious (apparently). Well done, all! These big sculptural pieces, after all, cost a king’s ransom to fabricate, and the last thing anyone wants is to be stuck for a year and a half with something that can’t be recognised, at 100 yards and travelling very fast, as Blue Chip, Establishment Approved Contemporary Art.

Reading through the new short-list, then, and looking at the accompanying pictures, it is not exactly hard to imagine what the future holds in store.

From Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller, we have what appears to be a patinated bronze of a burned-out car, titled The Spoils of War (Memorial for an unknown civilian). Now, at Fugitive Ink we think it’s both lazy and boring to dislike all successful contemporary artists, or at any rate to dislike them equally and impartially. We thus confess to a certain grudging regard for Jeremy Deller, broadly agreeing, just about, with this assessment. But at the same time, the notion of erecting, in Trafalgar Square, this heap of dispiriting, amateurish agit-prop fills us with a weary and rancid disgust we remember all too well from contemplating, not that long ago, Turner Prize winner Mark Wallinger’s State Britain. Let us hope — let us devoutly hope, hand on heart — that Deller truly believes that all those dead Iraqi civilians were truly ‘innocent’, that Britain takes less care than other nations when it comes to slaughtering the blameless, that most of the burnt-out and viscera-caked vehicles in Iraq are caused by US and UK (rather than e.g. Iraqi insurgent) violence, that in any event dead Iraqi civilians are more worthy of our commemoration than UK soldiers or civilians murdered by radical Islamist activity, and — most of all — that unimaginable death by flaming petrol vapour, metal fragments flying at the speed of bullets and the lurid glowing smear of chemical burns remains to him always a source of warm, slightly smug self-congratulation at his own liberal loveliness, his own unique sympathy in the face of the pitiable suffering of others, and the inexplicable evil of his own people. Otherwise, Mr Deller may well have a few sleepless nights.

On a lighter note, from Turner Prize loser (but photo-shoot regular) Tracey Emin we have some endearing, small statues of meercats. Her excuse for this, such as it is, reads as follows:

whenever Britain is in crisis or, as a nation, is experiencing sadness and loss (for example, after Princess Diana’s funeral), the next programme on television is Meerkats United [sic].

Can this be true? Having gone out to watch the late Princess’s cortege speeding up the Edgeware Road, dropping flowers as it went, we have no idea whether Miss Emin is making things up or not. There is, though, something endearingly anti-art about Emin — not just at the obvious level that she’s not very good at making visual images, either, but at the more important level of never seeming to take art all that seriously. Here, after all, is a woman who enjoys sewing, taking care of her cat, making her house look pretty, wearing nice clothes and trying to make relationships work. If we have marginally more sympathy with this proposal than with any of the rest, it probably has more to do with admiration for that essential, decent harmlessness than anything else.

The dullest solution to the puzzle of the plinth comes from Turner Prize winner Antony Gormley. To be fair, the dullness does entail a slight surprise, which is that this veteran cast-maker is not, for once, making a cast. Instead, he proposes to invite members of the public to stand on the plinth, an hour at a time, 24 hours a day, every day. The media, I suppose, would love this, as — given enough time and enough cheap labour — they might be able to tease from this a story or two. For the rest of us, though, it smacks of laziness and abdication of responsibility.

As for Turner Prize winner Anish Kapoor, he is going to place some large, convex mirrors on the plinth. Lordy, who would have suspected such a thing? These mirrors will look pretty, do no harm and be recognisable from Mars as the work of Turner Prize winner Anish Kapoor.

Meanwhile, Turner Prize nominee Yinka Shonibare MBE has suggested making a symbol of colonial oppression (a ship in a bottle) and then decorating it in incredibly pretty, sort-of-but-not-quite-African fabrics. Lordy, who would have suspected such a thing? The ship in a bottle (which turns out to represent HMS Victory) will look pretty, will do no harm because Shohibare, who is lovely, will go out of his way to say something really nice about it, e.g.

For me it’s a celebration of London’s immense ethnic wealth, giving expression to and honouring the many cultures and ethnicities that are still breathing precious wind into the sails of the UK

(which really is nice, isn’t it?), and will be recognisable from Jupiter’s better-placed moons as the work of Turner Prize nominee Yinka Shonibare MBE. (We are sure, at Fugitive Ink, that the early Georgian house in which we labour counts as a symbol of colonial oppression; we’d love Mr Shohibare to find us a nice lady to run us up loose covers in semi-African fabrics; we promise we’d only say nice, right-on but unscary things about them.)

Finally, from Bob and Roberta Smith, we have a solar-powered ‘peace sign’. We lack the energy to describe this sign, as it’s complicated but actually not very interesting. Instead, we will vouchsafe the information — clearly news to the subs at the Evening Standard! — that ‘Bob and Roberta Smith’ are in fact a man named Patrick Brill. Perhaps a culpable lack of transparency has prevented the Smiths, or Mr Brill, from winning his Turner Prize, although one feels it cannot be far off. Here is a one of his, err, their public utterances:

Bob & Roberta Smith believe in ‘the power of art to act as a social force as great and necessary to our lives as the police, the military and the judiciary’; their proposal is meant as a ‘gentle provocation to the overwhelming “Hogarthian” stature of Trafalgar Square as the centre of celebration of Britain’s military achievements over the French’.

Who knows what this means? The point, we guess, is that people who like that sort of thing read these words, feel clever and increasingly pleased with themselves — unburdened as they are, for instance, with the recognition that e.g. Jellicoe, Beatty and Cunningham may not have been too worried by the French.

Whatever next?
Sharp-eyed readers will have intuited, in the preceding paragraphs, a certain lack of enthusiasm for the recent plinth-proposals. Such intuition is spot-on. Of all the recent proposals, none even plays amusingly with the conventions of Trafalgar Square, Emin’s bronzed meercats perhaps excepted — and those, only with a degree of terminal cuteness that might well render their eighteen-month tenure a very, very long time. No, something better is needed.

The first thing that is needed is to banish ‘art’. For reasons adumbrated above, the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square is simply not the place for ‘art’. People have tried putting ‘art’ there, but it has never worked, if only because the works in question cannot quite come to terms with a traditional baggage several centuries older, and accordingly heavier, than the tradition of ‘art’ for its own sake. The time has come, therefore, to send ‘art’ packing, and bring back commemorative sculpture — workmanlike items, there to do the job of representing a recognisable individual — instead.

One proposal has suggested erecting the projected statue of William IV, and while the reasoning behind this is all wrong and actually just that little bit mad (is there anyone, even at the Adam Smith Institute, who truly believes the 1832 reform of the Poor Laws was an uncomplicatedly Good Thing?) we rather warm to the sheer reactionary starkness of the idea. True, William IV had to endure possibly the most tiresome legislative programme ever seen during the nineteenth century (which is saying a lot), but at least he listened, sometimes seriously, to the great Duke of Wellington, which is more than one can say for the wretched George IV. And he was a likeable man (ditto), who until the Radicals did their (reparable, over-publicised) damage, was immensely popular amongst his people. So, if someone did start raising the money for this one, we’d be right there with our guineas.

There is, however another plausible candidate, closer to home. We do not mean, in this case, Lady Thatcher. She already has a monument — indifferent, dull — within the Palace of Westminster, and although she really ought to have an outdoor one, too, by rights it will be in Parliament Square, if only because Churchill’s statue is there already. (In her divisive, quasi-liberal, Tory Party destroying magnificence, it is hard to bracket her with anyone else — but yes, again, clearly we’d be in there with our post-big-bang pounds.)

In passing, we should perhaps also dismiss the idea that poets, novelists or even the brilliant Dr Johnson might be suitable subjects for commemoration atop the fourth plinth. Whatever their merits, their chosen careers surely mark them as strangers and intruders in this space, ostensibly a monument to a great naval victory and in practice, the realm of public activities, rather than introspective exercises or the quieter modes of communication.

No, the plausible candidate is someone who deserves, at every level, to be placed alongside her fellow British monarch, someone whose ease and grace astride a horse positively demands an equestrian statue, someone whose elegant carriage and smartness in uniform are more than equal to the rigours of Trafalgar Square. From her plinth, up on Burmese, she could glimpse her beloved Household Division coming round from Admiralty Arch towards Whitehall on state occasions. The embassies and high commissions flanking the Square bear witness to her patient, sensible stewardship during extremely turbulent times. During her reign, Trafalgar Square put up with an enormous level of turbulence — celebrations, riots, ‘demos’ of all shades — leaving her, thank God, untroubled in her majesty, throughout the course of her resilient, lengthy reign. She also presided over one of the most splendidly surprising naval victories of modern times. Not for her, then, or for her time on the throne, the private avenues of regal Westminster or the protected spaces of Kensington. She deserves, and is more than capable of dominating, a very public space.

Let us, then, stop cavilling over that fourth plinth, and let our petty bureaucrats and functionaries stick up any silly thing they like, until — many years hence — we have, at last, a better candidate. God save Queen Elizabeth II! Here, though, once God has taken her on to a better place, is a token of how that final fourth plinth statue might look. And here, at last, is a subject who, against all the history of that difficult, troubled Square can, surely, hold her own.

Comments Off on What’s a nice artwork like you doing on a plinth like this?

Filed under art, culture

Comments are closed.