The Power of the Plinth

Last week, Whitehall was brought to a standstill by a naked man, who had decided to shimmy up a statue of the mounted 2nd Duke of Cambridge, to perch upon the Duke’s hat. 

Thomas Schütte's Fourth Plinth installation

Source: James O’Jenkins

Thomas Schütte’s Fourth Plinth installation

This man is neither the first nor the last to find himself in such a situation. Nudity + height has always been a formula for quick-fix attention – some, like Michelangelo’s David stay in the spotlight for a while, whereas this young pretender had about 30 minutes before things got too nippy. But no one can deny the power of the plinth. When you find yourself hoisted onto that sacred space, its not just a matter of gaining visibility – at the same time, some unfathomable force states that now you deserve to be seen. You’re art.

This is something explored by Antony Gormley in his piece ‘One and Other’, which inhabited the Fourth Plinth in 2009. The proposal offered the empty plinth with the sole addition of an safety net – and the invitation to the public to make a stand, one by one, around the clock, seven days a week, for 100 consecutive days. True, nudity wasn’t part of the package, but the piece provoked interesting questions about performance, vulnerability, monument and artistry.

Alison Lapper Pregnant, by Mark Quinn

Source: Justine Simons

Alison Lapper Pregnant, by Mark Quinn

The Fourth Plinth is the noble cause of public art, the GLA’s party piece. The empty plinth on the north west terrace of Trafalgar Square has been inviting commissions for 13 years – and has now been deemed deserving of a retrospective. The ICA’s exhibition, Fourth Plinth: Contemporary Monument will bring together the full set of 21 commissioned maquettes by artists including Mark Wallinger, Allora & Calzadilla, Jeremy Deller, Elmgreen & Dragset, Tracey Emin, Anish Kapoor, Sarah Lucas, Marc Quinn, Yinka Shonibare and Rachel Whiteread.

The design for the exhibition is particularly well thought out, with consideration of all the prickly issues of democracy, public opinion, hierarchies of display, and the key question of good and bad taste. Designed by consultancy Julia, the exhibition features a series of ‘plinths’, grey mdf cut at an imitative 45 ° angle, layered to mimic the different vantage points in the square and revolving chronologically around a central space. Julia’s Hugo Timm emphasises the exhibition’s aim to ‘break the idea of presenting precious finished artworks’ – these are maquettes, works in progress. The artwork is not complete until it is exposed upon the plinth itself.

A participant in Antony Gormley's One and Another installation

Source: Matthew Andrews

A participant in Antony Gormley’s One and Another installation

One simple but visionary aspect of the design is the choice to include an enclosed space in the centre of the exhibition, an ‘archive room’ documenting the reaction to the plinths in the press. There is something particularly enjoyable about having access to all the vitriol of the tabloids when you would otherwise be contained within the minty freshness of a gallery. Here, we see Mark Quinn’s sculpture ‘Alison Lapper Pregnant’ drawing moans of distress from the press, and the ‘double sale’ of Yinka Shonibare’s ‘Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle adding grist to the mill of the ‘public money’ question.

Timm says, ‘the square is a public space, so an exhibition would need to consider the impact of public opinion. But we didn’t want to have a newspaper article placed next to the maquette – we wanted to free the maquettes from the surrounding “noise” – we wanted to allow people to make up their own mind.

Elmgreen Dragset's installation
Elmgreen Dragset’s installation

‘We become used to the commissions as they become part of the square – they gain a new meaning as they endure, and often even the most hostile of critics are sad to see an artwork go.’ So, perhaps this central ‘archive’ in the exhibition is about recovering our critical sense – but an exhibition space is inevitably one of curated, internal control. Our eyes our directed in a certain way, our opinions are both fanned, and formed for us. In the square, a thousand other things distract us – birds, crowds, rain, wind, architecture – and confirmed, canonised art,  just a few steps away in the National Gallery.

All the works documented in the exhibition have in some way attempted to erode our system of values. This is the one prescriptive factor of the plinth – it requires a mood of opposition, it needs a work which will look the lions in the eye, and laugh. It requires a true performer. Statues are conveniently frozen, released from any obligation to perform. As part of Gormley’s piece, some people brought books, some expounded views, some, suffering from the extreme state of role reversal, took photos. The call for nudity suddenly makes sense. Plinths are the last word in over-exposure.

Fourth Plinth: Contemporary Monument is on show at the ICA from 5 December 2012 – 20 January 2013.

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