TCS Daily


Trafalgar Square's Rebellious Statues

By Josie Appleton - March 8, 2004 12:00 AM

Trafalgar Square is the place in London where, for the past 160 years, the British establishment has paraded its heroes. Lord Nelson surveys the site from on high, with naval victories emblazoned on the base of his column. George IV sits astride his horse, as do two generals who fought in defence of the British Empire. Busts of admirals from the first and second world wars adorn the north wall. A wander around the square gives a snapshot of the changing fortunes and values of the British establishment.

The competition to find a statue for the vacant fourth plinth displays a very new mood. Rather than proclaiming the triumphs of the elite, the fourth plinth has become a site of dissent.

Five of the six finalists -- submitted to the Greater London Authority's (GLA) Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group -- criticise some aspect of official policy. Two take up the GLA's ban on pigeons in the square: Sarah Lucas has a Ford Fiesta that appears to be covered in pigeon dung, while Thomas Schutte has entered a Perspex architectural model entitled "Hotel for the birds." Two proposals criticise the war: Sokari Douglas Camp has a group of anti-war protesters, and Stephan Gec entered life-size replicas of Tomahawk cruise missiles. Marc Quinn counters Nelson's "phallic male monument" with a nude statue of a pregnant disabled woman.

Of course, Trafalgar Square is no stranger to rebellion, but in the past it tended to go on off the plinths rather than on them. The square has long been a site for public demonstrations on everything from tax, to unemployment, to the war in Northern Ireland. Time after time, people have crowded around Nelson's column to fight against official policy. In 1848 a crowd even attacked Nelson with stones ripped up from around the column's base. In fact, much of the square's design is aimed at hampering popular protests. Those ridiculously huge fountains were designed to restrict the area available for gathering crowds. The base of Nelson's column is deliberately difficult to ascend.

Yet the finalists for the Fourth Plinth exhibit a very different kind of rebellion; a wry sneer rather than a proposition of an alterative set of views and values. It knows what it is against -- war, pigeon-control, Nelson -- but has less idea what it is for. Stephan Gec, for example, said that his model of Tomahawk cruise missiles "aims to explore the concept of victory and its commemoration in the twenty-first century." Surely essays are for exploring concepts, not monuments? Lucas said that her car was a "nod to the hopelessness" of the attempts to get rid of the pigeons. Admittedly, Douglas Camp draws links between her anti-war marchers and the square's rebellious history, yet her stilted figures look as if they are wandering around the edge of the plinth trying to find a way off. The figures' "No War" signs add to their air of aimlessness, as if they are reminding themselves why they are there.

The designs have largely been greeted with indifference from the public. This comes despite the hearty efforts of the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery to generate public debate around the competition. The galleries have put on a series of public events and exhibitions, and invited votes and comments on the finalists. When I went to look at the designs one evening, I was unable to find any enthusiasts. "You can't put these on a plinth," said one man. "None of them leap out at me," said another. The complaints were that the statues were inappropriate, ugly, snide or dull. When I pushed two friends to plump for a design, they added the qualifier "if we have to." Nevertheless, visitors found it more difficult to say what they would put on the plinth instead. A few said that they wanted the late Queen Mother, but most just wanted "something else."

Ours is an age that lacks both common values and popular heroes, so finding a new statue for Trafalgar Square was always going to be difficult. Artists can only draw on what society has to offer -- they can't invent heroes. But what artists can do is express today's society in better or worse ways. And most people agree that Rachel Whiteread and Mark Wallinger's offerings in the first batch of temporary statues for the plinth did a much better job than the present finalists. While Lucas et al take post-shots at officialdom, Whiteread's inverted plinth and Wallinger's life-size statue of Christ were much more thoughtful. The result of the latest competition will be announced in late March; whoever wins, the sensible position may well be to hold out for "something else."

The author is a journalist for spiked (www.spiked-online.com), and author of "Museums for The People," a critical look at changes in museum policy. She last wrote for TCS about museums and repatriation claims.


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