As I type this, a woman is sitting on a ledge high over Trafalgar Square playing English folk tunes on a concertina for the sake of art.
There are four enormous plinths in Trafalgar Square in London, meant to hold four enormous statues. The statues on three of them don’t come into this story; the fourth plinth, which sat empty for over 150 years, is more interesting. It was meant to hold an equestrian statue of William IV, but the money ran out. When the money was found, people had apparently gone off the idea of William IV and couldn’t agree on whose likeness ought to be up there, so the plinth stayed vacant.In 1999, a variety of artists were invited to take turns putting their works on the fourth plinth. On one hand, this sounds like the kind of nondecision I usually dislike, the kind of wishywashy-ness that results in Time Magazine naming several “People of the Year” instead of nailing their colours to the mast (a suitably Trafalgarian metaphor!) and making a decision. You used to see this a lot in progressive schools in which they wouldn’t reward achievement unless every pupil got a prize. Why bother?
On the other and very much the dominant hand, the Fourth Plinth project has been great. The variety of sculptures up on the plinth was a joy in itself, tickling the public’s interest in art with each new work. Nontraditional offerings—such as Marc Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnant, a marble nude showing Quinn’s fellow artist Alison Lapper, who was born without the ordinary complement of limbs; and Rachel Whiteread’s Monument, consisting of a transparent Lucite replica of the plinth itself, only set upside-down—spurred debate about what art is and what art should be. My favorite piece until this summer was Bill Woodrow’s Regardless of History, a tree with its roots growing down around a book and then around a human head to grasp the plinth itself. But then, I’ve got a soft spot for Woodrow’s work. His Sitting on History , in the lobby of the British Library, is my favourite piece of public art, bar none: an enormous open book in bronze that doubles as a bench. You sit on the open pages.
This summer, though, artist Antony Gormley has selected 2400 members of the public from a pool of almost 35000 applicants. Each of them gets an hour to sit on the plinth and do whatever they want, together creating a work Gormley calls One and Other.
I only lately found out that there are cameras aimed at the plinth and on the square—where right now, a side of Morris dancers are jingling their bells and flailing their hankies in the time-honoured form—and anyone can watch the action via the inter-net. And I’ve been fascinated for two days, although at the moment, I confess I’m a bit tired of wheedling concertina music played by someone who keeps rushing the tempo, and I’ve turned the sound down.
The variety has been wonderful. Just since I’ve been tuning in, they’ve presented a man eating a picnic made up of the produce of his part of Wales; a woman doing aerobics; a man making Christmas decorations and lowering them down to passersby who had to promise to put them on a Christmas tree; a couple of people who were asked to fill in at the last minute because of cancellations and had nothing to do or say; people singing badly; a man who tried for an hour to convince us that alive among us today is a figure who is simultaneously the second coming of Christ, the fifth Buddha, Krishna and the Immam Mahdi; an MS sufferer handcuffed to a post with a sign saying we must “break the shackles of MS”; a woman in a black robe sitting still in front of a cross; various artists drawing or painting (one in a tricorn hat); protests against war and for personal freedom in a variety of countries, including one all-purpose protestor whose sign read “Stop All Wars”; someone playing “Fairtrade bingo” with the crowd below and giving away Fairtrade coffee prizes; a schoolteacher who made paper statues of students and sat in front of them to work out a lesson plan on poetry about Boadicea.
And since this is England, some of this took place in the pouring rain.
The woman who planned to sit for an hour with a book and read as the ultimate get-away-from-it-all experience might have done better if she’d ignored passersby, left her radio below, and turned off her cell/mobile phone. As she accepted call after call, she complained that she hadn’t had time to read very much. Maybe that was her point, maybe the interruptions were pre-arranged, but I don’t think so. A surprising number of plinthers spent their time up on the plinth talking by phone to people not on the plinth. Maybe that makes a stay on the plinth a metaphor for the isolation of the individual, but I think it’s more a matter of showing, without have planned or meant to show, how modern communication devices have changed our expectations of how much contact we’ll have with other people, as well as illustrating how intrusive and annoying cell/mobile phones can be.
Yesterday morning when I checked in, a man was setting up to play chess with the public by mobile phone, which seemed to me a good use of the technology and the moment. Problem was that nobody phoned him. So I did. As far as I can tell, the only people who called him in the whole hour were a friend of his named something like Kai or Kyle, a guy called John who works for the project and was phoning from the temporary building/portacabin below, and me. He had a plan for what to do if no one phoned, though; he threw conkers (US: buckeyes, I think) down to the people below.
Some things are inevitable. There have been hecklers. There has been profanity. There has been nudity. It was inevitable that some plinthers would take off their clothes. The concertina lady has now gone and a nude man is setting up his presentation now, which seems to involve spreading out an enormous sheet of foil-like silver plastic. He’s taping it down with duct tape as the wind makes it flutter. The wind has been a significant factor, too; one of the schoolteacher’s little paper students blew off the plinth to be caught in the safety net below, after which the teacher said he’d created “suicidal art”.
An open-topped tour bus has just passed the plinth, with all eyes, binoculars and cameras on the upper deck focussed on the nude man, who is still setting out his wares. He’s a third of the way into his time, and we don’t yet know what his project is, other than being exposed to the elements and to his fellowmen.
I said that the concertina lady is gone and the naturist has taken her place, but that’s easier said than done. Just before the hour, every hour, day and night, a cherry-picker rolls across the square, moving slowly and accompanied by ground staff in reflective jackets who walk alongside, like a float or a hot air balloon in a parade. The cherry-picker lifts a staff member and the next participant up over the safety net and makes contact with the plinth, the staff member opens the gate, the players trade places, and the cherry picker makes its stately way back.
Ah, now the nude man has put a sticker reading “Please be nice to each other” on his arm, and has put out his “Stop all wars” banner. As art, it’s been done, but as a message to the world I’m sure it bears repeating.
I ought to hate this project. If I dislike the fact that Time Magazine sometimes can’t pick an individual person of the year, and the idea that every 7th-grader has to be applauded even if they haven’t done anything outstanding because we can’t pick out and honour outstanding individuals, then surely I should abhor this come-one-come-all, talent-optional artwork. But I don’t. I love it. I should probably articulate why, but I’m going to weasel out of that because I want to get this posted so that readers who don’t know, as I didn’t, that they can follow this pageant live on the inter-net get the word before the event closes.
I won’t soon forget the “Free Tibet” lady in the yak mask whose sign said “I’m Mary, the Yak” (and it’s a good thing she had a sign, because I wouldn’t have known what she was supposed to be). Or the plump lady in the prom dress who advocated both preservation of endangered gorillas and research on breast cancer (dramatizing, to some extent, a breast self-examination). Or the man making a diplomatic address from the independent republic of Hay-on-Wye to the UK declaring the deposing of King Richard Booth (Americans: I’ll have to explain Hay-on-Wye another time). Or the woman with a sing-song voice suitable for speaking to kindergartners, setting out small stones in little circles and telling us we should celebrate our individuality;
By this point, I confess I’ve pretty much lost interest in the nude man. He’s been setting out a variety of small objects of unknown purpose, some held together by string—playing cards, small spiky Pilates balls, balloons, bits of coloured plastic. He has now rubbed himself all over with lotion, shaken the entire contents of a large box of white powder over himself—presumably the foil sheet is there to keep the surface clean for the next plinther—and with 10 minutes to go, has tossed the contents of a box of cocoa powder into his face. At least it’s not raining.
The naturist’s individual point doesn’t matter as much as the aggregate, I think. There has been at least one proposal of marriage on the plinth—extremely awkward, involving repeated shouting of “Will you marry me?” into a cell/mobile phone which apparently had a bad connection—and if this went on long enough, no doubt a baby would be born up there, no doubt someone would die. Gormley seems to have turned the plinth into a big mirror and let us look at ourselves. Well, parts of ourselves, but that’s fair enough, since no mirror can reflect everything we are. If you want to have a look into this particular mirror, do it now, because the show closes October 14.
It’s three minutes to 1:00. Here comes the cherry-picker.
(Live feed at http://www.oneandother.co.uk, or click on the featured link on my blog.)