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.

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No, J J Abrams – Star Wars was never “a boy’s thing”

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”.

In 1977, millions of people went to cinemas to see Star Wars: A New Hope, and afterwards, a good portion of them were suddenly rendered invisible. It didn’t matter that they rushed to line up for the sequels; it didn’t matter that they were eager to buy and play with the toys; it didn’t matter that they grew up to read the novels and explore the expanded universe and sit through the prequels and introduce their children to something they had loved as a child. They’re a group that overlaps with the invisible force that haunts comic book shops, or plays a lot of video games, or makes up nearly half the audience for superhero films, or, to one New Statesman staffer’s persistent, possibly-only-half joking incredulity, liked Doctor Who long before Russell T Davies got his hands on it. 

With less than three weeks before J J Abrams’s rebooted Star Wars hits screens, the director went on Good Morning America yesterday to talk in vague, broad strokes about his turn with the franchise. But the otherwise-unremarkable interview made headlines because of one segment, when Abrams was asked who he most excited to hear from about the film. He said:

“Star Wars was always about, you was always a boy’s thing, and a movie that dads take their sons to. And though that’s still very much the case, I was really hoping that this could be a movie that mothers can take their daughters to as well. So I’m looking forward to kids seeing this movie and to seeing themselves in it, and seeing that they’re capable of doing what they could never imagine was possible.”

That invisible group of Star Wars fans, who love that well-known “boy’s thing”? Women, who have spent the past four decades loving the franchise just as much as all those fanboys, even if no one else – the fanboys themselves in particular – seemed to take much notice. Abrams’s offhand remark coincided with recent headlines like Bloomberg’s “‘Star Wars’ Toys Aren’t Just For Boys Anymore as Rey Takes Over”, a reference to the female lead of The Force Awakens, portrayed by Daisy Ridley. Across the web, aside from stirrings by the now-mandatory Internet Outrage Machine, the overwhelming response seemed to be one of sad and somewhat resigned frustration, with women sharing memories of falling in love with the series, essentially saying, “We’ve been here this whole time.” My friend Lori Morimoto, in “An Open Letter to J J Abrams”, wrote, “I’d like to tell you the story of a girl who became a Star Wars fan. I hope you can suspend disbelief over my existence long enough to make it to the end.”

Star Wars is a universe populated by complicated gender politics, on and off screen. The three original films fail most facets of the Bechdel test (I laughed out loud here seeing the suggestion that A New Hope deserves a pass because the only two named female characters could have talked offscreen). Princess Leia’s enslavement and escape (and the bikini she wears while doing it) is a cultural touchstone that’s launched a complicated feminist dialogue over the decades. And it is perhaps because of the mostly-male cast in the films – and the long-held assumption that science fiction is a primarily masculine property – that the franchise has long been marketed exclusively to boys, despite the massive and loyal female audience.

But the modern Star Wars empire is helmed a woman, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, and when she revealed that two-thirds the story team behind the newest film was female, she also pledged that there would be a woman in the director’s chair before too long. And since one of the leads in The Force Awakens is a woman, her character, along with a black male lead – portrayed by John Boyega – sparked anger from the reactionary white guy corner of the internet in recent months (sorry that the SJWs ruined your movies, guys!). For films that once portrayed a place so alien that only white men were allowed to speak to each other, the widening of representation in this reboot apparently looks to some like a political – or, to them, a politically correct – act.

The welcome diversity of the leading cast highlights all the good intentions in Abrams’s statement: that this new film promises more than a panoply of white guys, that girls and people of colour can see themselves reflected back in these new heroes. All the girls who thought the movies weren’t for them because they only saw men onscreen, or the endless line of male action figures on the shelf, have a point of entry now – that’s what representation means. And that’s certainly worth cheering for, even if it only took us 40 years to get there. But it’s hard for all the people who aren’t white men who’ve found other points of entry over the years, who managed to love it without seeing themselves there. I can speak from personal experience when I say that a lifetime of media about white guys hasn’t stopped me from finding characters and stories to fall in love with.

Here’s a theory: you might not have noticed that you were surrounded by female Star Wars fans all these years because you were the one who rendered them invisible. Women who like things such as Star Wars, or comics, or anything else that leads journalists to write those painful “not just for boys anymore” trend stories, have had to take it from all sides. Enthusiasm for something seen as the province of men clashes with mainstream perceptions of femininity. Even women liking this stuff in the context of traditionally feminised fan spaces, like fanfiction, find themselves fending off assumptions from men and women alike, perhaps the accusation that they are sexualising something too much, or they are placing too much weight on the emotional elements of a storyline. Basically, that they’re liking the thing the wrong way.

But women’s enthusiasm for perceived “male” spaces is always liking the thing the wrong way. The plainest illustration of this is the Fake Geek Girl, in meme and in practice: the barriers to entry are raised immeasurably high when women try to join in many male-dominated fannish conversations. The wonderful Noelle Stevenson illustrates this beautifully – and then literally, when a guy challenges her on her work. I’m sure that just by writing about Star Wars, I’m opening myself up to the angry gatekeeping-style pissing contests that men like to toss at women who claim to like the things they like. (Let’s get it all out in the open here: Star Wars isn’t my fandom. I saw the three original films on dates with my first boyfriend – our first date: Star Trek: First Contact, because we were clearly the coolest kids in town – and upon rewatches as an adult nothing grabbed me. But I am also a fandom journalist, so that’s kind of how this works.)

There’s a persistent myth – and I say persistent because I keep seeing these deluded boys get mad in new viral posts – that women who claim to like geeky things are just pretending, the somewhat confusing notion that they are doing it for attention. (And then there’s the inevitable anger that in this supposedly desperate plea for attention – why else would a woman claim to like their beloved characters?! – these women still don’t want to sleep with them.) And what never seems to occur to any of these gatekeepers is that these women were there all along, liking these things just as much – and are finally being given the cultural space to be open about their interests and passions. But that space is given haltingly; plenty of women, tired of waiting, are going out and taking it. The result is the tension (and, at times, outright hostility) that has marked certain corners of the fannish world in the past few years.

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”. There are many reasons that people love Star Wars, and most of them are universal things: the themes, the characters, the archetypal struggle of good versus evil. Most of the time we default to the white guy; he struggles with things we all struggle with, but somehow, he is deemed most relatable. Abrams, Kennedy, and everyone behind the new films should be applauded for their efforts to give non-white guys a turn at the universal story – I think these are incredibly valuable choices, and certainly will make the films vastly more accessible, particularly to children.

But we don’t just need Rey on screen and Rey dolls on the shelves for mothers and daughters – those same mothers and daughters have found plenty to love without many women to look to on their screens. We need boys to love the female heroes as much as we’ve loved the men over the years: we need universal to be truly universal. And when we express that love, the default reaction shouldn’t be a challenge: not, “You don’t like this thing as much as I do,” or, “You don’t love this the right way.” Isn’t it easier to say, “Oh, I’m so glad that you love this, too!”

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.