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6 December 2012updated 07 Sep 2021 11:50am

Review – The Fourth Plinth: Contemporary Monument

Its courted controversy in the past, but the ICA’s new show makes a stand for the plinth’s cultural significance.

By Charlotte Simmonds

Back in 1994, when a businesswoman, restaurateur, and RSA chair named 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 difficultly. 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 with 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 get the plan levied, 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; commenting, in part, on humanity’s struggle against nature.   Next came Rachel Whiteread’s understated Monument: a replica of the Plinth cast in clear resin, inverted, and plunked 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 Art 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’ 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-nineties onwards, documenting this press and publics mixed reactions at various stages. Critical denouncement come from various voices including writer/broadcaster Mathew Collings and the Daily Mail’s Roy Hattersly, who called the Marc Quinn’s 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 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 equally heavy handed praise – from architecture critic Rowan Moore’s pledge of support to Prue in the early days, which was followed by others like Brian Sewell. One glowing review on show has the Standard’s Ben Lewis praising Antony Gormy for creating “public art work that the public like”, finishing with this:

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“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 the public’s best interest at heart, and it’s hard to criticise such an interest without sounding like a grumpy old scrooge. As unlikable, trendy, or pointless as some of the commissions may appear, the projects aim from its inception has been 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 program went briefly underground before remerging in the format we now know today. This format, she says, is a “rigorous process that takes a good deal of time”.

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“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 of 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 gesture of after-thought, but rather an active exhibition staged over a period of months whether 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 sifting through them all is 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 grins. “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 program 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, whose wandering nearby, is also cackling loud approvals of the plinth’ longevity. I overhear him say that he, for one, is particularly excited for the big blue cock due up this July.

(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)