Review - The Fourth Plinth: Contemporary Monument

It's courted controversy in the past, but the ICA’s new show makes a stand for the Plinth’s cultural significance.

Back in 1994, when the businesswoman, restaurateur and RSA chair Prue Leith wrote in the Evening Standard that the long vacant fourth plinth in Trafalgar square should be filled by public suggestion, her proposal was met with consternation. Some saw it as an act of “meddlesome pointlessness”. The vacant 16 by 8 foot mount in Trafalgar’s northwest corner had stood vacant for almost 150 years. Why bother with it now? Leith wrangled her way through a bureaucratic swamp that included negotiations with the Victorian Society, the Georgian Society, the Fine Arts Commission, the English Heritage, the Westminster Public Art Advisory Committee and the Armed Forces a number of others to gain permission to put contemporary art on the plinth. Along with the way – advised by a special report considering both public and critical opinion – it was decided that the Fourth Plinth (now with a capital “FP”) would become a site for temporary contemporary art: a rotating platform for newly commissioned work to be decided upon, in part, by the public.

It took five years to bring the plan to fruition, but in 1999 Mark Wallinger unveiled Ecce Homo, a life-sized sculpture of Christ that commented quietly on the bravado of outsized statutes nearby. A year later, Bill Woodrow’s Regardless of History surmounted the space - a bronze bust bound to the plinth by the roots of a dead tree. Next came Rachel Whiteread’s understated Monument: a replica of the Plinth cast in clear resin, inverted, and plonked on top of the original. She called it “a pause in the city, a place that felt very quiet.”

Year on year, the Plinth has serves as receptacle for the latest in a line of noted contemporary works that has included, most famously, Mark Quinn’s mammoth marble statue of disabled mother Allison Lapper and Antony Gormly’s Plinth-as-stage live art marathon One & Other. This week the Institute of Contemporary Arts opens what could be called the Plinth’s first retrospective -  Fourth Plinth: Contemporary Monument. It’s essentially a chronological walk through of each of the Plinth commissions, including several notable entries that only just missed sitting on the spot. There’s a scale maquette of each of the works, from Sarah Lucas’s pigeon-shit stained saloon car to Bob & Roberta Smith’s Make Art, Not War – a towering carnivalesque construction that, if realised, would have reached as high as Nelson’s column. The gallery space is dramatically lit, lending the miniatures a sense of ceremony fit for the crown jewels. It’s a reverential touch, but is all the reverence justified?

The show shies not away from the controversy the Plinth has courted over the years. At the centre of the exhibit sits another chronological presentation – this time it’s four walls of news clippings from the mid-1990s onwards, documenting press and public reaction at various stages. Critical denunciation comes from various voices including writer/broadcaster Mathew Collings and the former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Roy Hattersley, who called the Marc Quinn piece “the wrong statue in the wrong place” and suggested a permanent tribute to William Shakespeare in its stead. The ever vocal Jonathan Jones, four years back, compared the Plinth unfavorably to its 19th-century counterparts, calling it “a staid and boring institution… a manifestly pompous way of giving weak sculpture a bit of authority”.

On the other side there is gushing praise. In one glowing review, the Standard’s Ben Lewis praises Anthony Gormley for creating “public art work that the public like”:

There is one thing I really admire about Gormley’s Fourth Plinth. Predictable, unoriginal, and boring as it is, this is a work of art that is so politically correct it’s impossible to criticise it without sound like a fascist.

It’s a sentiment that could apply to the Plinth as a whole – it has always had the public’s best interests at heart, and it’s hard to criticise it without sounding like a grumpy old scrooge. As trendy or pointless as some of the commissions may have been, the project's aim from its inception has been to promote art, not for the glory of the artist, but for the sake of the people. As Sally Shaw, head of culture for the Mayor of London, tells me, the public have in fact been a major factor in selecting commissions over the past decade. Responsibility for the Plinth was handed over from the RSA to the Mayor of London in 2003. The programme went briefly underground before remerging in the format we now know today. This, she says, is a “rigorous process that takes a good deal of time”:

We draw up a long list of 150 artists, and from there we will usually contact forty people and ask them if they’d like to submit a proposal. The Mayor’s Culture Team works with the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group [a body formed of members from the Arts Council, journalists, curators, and artists including Jeremy Deller and Grayson Perry] and from there we whittle it down to six final commissions, which we then submit to the public for commentary.

This process of “commentary” is no after-thought, but rather an active exhibition staged over a period of months where visitors are encouraged to comment and vote for what they’d like to see put up next. The last show drew 17,000 comments. Shaw and her team sift through them all as part of an effort to make the Fourth Plinth “the most open and public commissioning programme for contemporary art”.

“The Plinth gets people talking about art,” she says with a grin. “Contemporary art can often be seen as elitist, or we talk about it in too complicated a way. It’s unfortunate but true. But the public talk so easily about what’s on the Plinth, it gets people thinking about difficult ideas, talking about fantastic subjects. Its temporary nature makes it significant as a piece of London’s changing geography, tracking cultural responses to political issues and contemporary history. Each piece says something different about the city and the people who put it there.”

So how long can the project run? Can the “permanent programme for impermanent art” formula succeed long term? ICA Director Gregor Muir chimes in: “The project really belongs to everyone; its audience is in the millions.

“The public are now part of the equation,” he adds. “It has grown off the public reaction, getting everyone involved, and moving contemporary art forward. I can’t see it going away now that it’s at the heart of this city.”

Grayson Perry, who is wandering nearby, is cackling approvingly about the Plinth’s longevity. I overhear him saying that he is particularly excited about the big blue cock due to go up this July.

Fourth Plinth: Contemporary Monument runs until 20 January 2013 at the ICA, London SW1.

(Marc Quinn, Alison Lapper Pregnant, 2003. PHOTO: James O’Jenkins/ICA)

(Installation View. PHOTO: James O’Jenkins/ICA)

(Installation View. PHOTO: James O’Jenkins/ICA)

(Yinka Shonibare, MBE, Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, 2008. James O’Jenkins/ICA)

(Katharina Fritsch, Hahn / Cock, 2010. PHOTO: Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

(Thomas Schutte, Model for a Hotel, 2007. PHOTO: James O’Jenkins/ICA)

(Installation View. PHOTO: James O’Jenkins/ICA)
 

The Fourth Plinth's forthcoming comission, Katharina Fritsch's Hahn / Cock, 2010. (PHOTO: James O’Jenkins/ICA, 2012)

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

The Writers Museum
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Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear