Watch This Plinth

One and Other is done and over. Antony Gormley’s installation on the fourth plinth finished Wednesday at 9 a.m. with the last plinther presenting a tribute to those who died in the Hillsborough disaster.

After following the action via the inter-net, I got myself to Trafalgar Square to see it live about 12 hours before the project closed. I arrived to find a woman with an American accent standing under a “Go Phillies” flag, taking digital photos of people on the ground and working them into little figurines of Admiral Nelson (Nelson’s Column is just across the square). People took turns standing on a X chalked on the pavement so that she could take a photo, print it, trim it, mount it onto a lollipop under a paper hat and over a Plasticine body, and launch it down from the plinth with a plastic grocery bag as a parachute.

I didn’t actually elbow anyone aside, but I did make sure I got to participate so I could post a photo here—for which I thank Sarah, the plinther who crafted the little figures.

Next up was a man who held up a flip chart and spoke quietly to the camera, presumably about the contents of the pages he showed to the viewers around the world. He didn’t show them to us. Call me unperceptive, but it hadn’t occurred to me while watching the live feed at home that those who spoke only to the camera were effectively turning their backs on the live audience in Trafalgar Square. That includes the fellow with the chess game I wrote about before. I had a lot of fun watching him and participating in the game, but the live audience looking up at him wouldn’t have had a clue what was happening on the chess board, might not even have known that there was a chess board, though he did throw them conkers.

Plasticine Lord Nelson with my face

Plasticine Lord Nelson with my face

Conkers were easier to throw than Plasticine Lord Nelsons. The wind drove a couple of figurines, including mine, in the safety net surrounding the plinth. (The net was needed; at least one plinther fell into it.) Several bystanders offered to jump for our figurines or to poke them out of the net with umbrellas, but security couldn’t allow that sort of thing. The plinther herself tried to rescue my Lord Nelson with her flagpole (you can see it on the video). Eventually a crew member came with a set of pincers on a long pole and rescued our tiny admirals for us.

While the next participant spoke to the camera, I struck up conversations with people in the crowd. I met Captain John, a denizen of the square who was himself a plinther and who seems to have been in the live audience for most of the project, making sure that everyone noticed him. (He was far quieter on the plinth than off.) I even saw Trafalgus, whose nude performance I described before, though he was fully clothed again by then. I chatted with protesters (anti-Sharia law, anti-death penalty). I spoke to people who had skipped work to stand under the plinth for hours, to passersby who thought the whole thing was silly, and to foreign tourists who had no idea what was going on. One Londoner admitted she hadn’t even heard about the event, but only happened to be passing through the square. I even, out of all the people in London, ran into someone I knew.

The security guard, a singer from Manchester (security is her day job), maintained that Gormley’s project is art because it makes you think about people and about art; certainly she’d seen more hours of the project than anyone else, so maybe she had spent more time considering the issue. I had seen her on my computer screen so many times that talking to her felt like meeting a celebrity. On the other hand, Maxime from Italy, who said he was a stylist for fashion shoots and who kissed me on both cheeks before he left, held that One and Other isn’t art at all. Waldemar Januszczak, art critic for the Sunday Times—okay, he wasn’t there, but he did write about this—agreed with Maxime; he seems to have found One and Other worthwhile and great fun, but art? “Of course not”.

<i>Event Horizon</i>

Event Horizon

Still, some plinthers based their performances on Gormley’s sculptures, making the kinds of nods to previous artworks that we’re used to seeing artists make. There were various angels having more or less to do with Gormley’s Angel of the North, for instance. And the next participant after Mr Ignores-the-Crowd (it seems that really got under my skin, though he was entirely within his rights to spend his hour any way he saw fit), might have alluded to Gormley’s sculptures—I’m not sure. As the cherry-picker rose into the air it looked as though this next candidate had brought a massage table; using that would be a trick, since only one person at a time could go up. It turned out to be an ironing board anyway. (My housekeeping is such that I am not terribly familiar with ironing, and had no idea there were ironing boards with apertures. Why do British ironing boards have holes in them?) She spent her hour ironing her laundry wearing a long formal dress. Could that have been an ironic—as it were—reference to Gormley’s Iron: Man?

I didn’t stick around to find out, because it was getting cold. I ducked into the National Gallery for a cup of tea. When I came out, a masked man stood on the plinth in a suit painted to look like bronze. He stood calmly, silently, in a relaxed pose, moving every so often to take an only slightly different pose at another position on the plinth. I took this to be a reference to other Gormley works—mainly Event Horizon , for which in 2007 Gormley positioned 31 life-size sculptures of male bodies on top of buildings in London.

Event Horizon was the first Gormley sculpture I encountered and remains the eeriest. To look out of a car window and see, without warning, a man poised on the edge of the roof of the Hayward Gallery was striking to say the least. A quick second take and I realized the figure was a sculpture, but what was it meant to be doing? Was he silently watching us? Was he contemplating a jump? Any way I thought about it, it was disquieting, but the figure itself wasn’t threatening in the slightest; it was simply there. Whatever uneasiness I found in the work, I manufactured myself. Striking indeed.

An plinther's homage to Gormley's previous works.

An plinther's homage to Gormley's previous works. Photo courtesy of Tricia Gilbert.

But what if the correspondences between plinth performances and Gormley’s previous works were all in my head, too? As the cherry picker took the metallic man away (leaving the plinth to another angel, this one a dancer who looked as if her routine would at least keep her warm) I had one last chance to find out. I went running after the machine, causing a crew member to move quickly to block me as if I were bent on violence. There was just enough time to call out to the artist “Was that an homage to Gormley’s other works?” and for him to tell me that it was. Curiosity satisfied, I called it a day.

In the previous post I said this work was a mirror of society, which now strikes me as fatuous in that it can be said of virtually anything society produces. If the mirror metaphor works at all, then I’d have to say that this particular mirror didn’t flatter. For one thing, by the end I felt it reflected far too many people who chose to spend their hour in chit-chat with friends via cell/mobile phones. Surely even sitting and daydreaming would have been more creative and more interesting to watch. Either that many people lacked imagination, or that many people were so nervous about being in the public eye that they couldn’t last an hour without a social umbilical cord, or that many people didn’t see the opportunity as worth any effort.

One step up in imagination, but still well below the threshold of what I’d call interesting, were several people who accepted suggestions for what they should do on the plinth from the audience, although as far as I could tell few of the plinthers taking this approach acted on many of the suggestions. One called back to someone on the ground, “Do you think I’d be up here if I could do a back flip?”, leaving the impression that taking a turn the plinth was something you did if you weren’t capable of much else.

The cherry-picker rolls out to deliver an angel to the plinth.

The cherry-picker rolls out to deliver an angel to the plinth. Photo courtesy of Tricia Gilbert.

In the end, there were enough serene, surreal, or sincere presentations to off-set those who didn’t try.
Having waffled long enough about whether One and Other is art that I could probably make a decent case either way, I dropped the question and went on enjoying (most of) the spectacle without trying to analyze it. The mirror isn’t necessary; there was plenty of thought-provoking entertainment and interaction to be had on the ground. But then again, the people providing that were brought together by Gormley’s production.

Next up on the plinth? Yinka Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle. Watch this plinth.

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7 Comments

Filed under Arts, Culture, Current events

7 responses to “Watch This Plinth

  1. Candida

    Although Gormley’s a sculptor, One and Other might be more readily seen as theatre. And if theatre, including improvisational theatre, is art, then – it’s art. But if it really has to be treated as sculpture, is motivating hundreds of people to stand on a plinth and do their own thing more or less art than paying a team of people to pickle a shark?

    (I have to say, I don’t actually much care, because I’m not convinced that ‘art’ is a useful noun with a definite meaning at all, except as an opposite of ‘nature’. I just know which one made me smile and which one made me think “Tosser”.)

    • Tricia

      I just know which one made me smile and which one made me think “Tosser”.

      But the interesting thing is that someone else might have the exact opposite conclusion of which is which.

      • Candida

        Absolutely. Which is why I don’t think “art” is much use as a word. It’s just a declaration of consensus with one group or another. If you’re with Saatchi, you think what Hirst does is art. If you’re with Childish and Thompson, you think it’s rubbish.

        To slightly misuse the British Humanist Asociation –There’s probably no art. Now stop worrying and enjoy what you like.

      • Be fair! Nobody’s worrying, unless it’s in the sense of a dog worrying a bone. We’re having fun poking at the idea of quote-art-unquote to see what happens.

  2. Candida

    Oh, it wasn’t meant to be a serious admonition – just a twist on that bus slogan! I must try using smileys, but something in my psyche recoils, I’m afraid.

  3. Candida

    “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy the rest of your life.” It was put on London buses last year by a humanist organisation, and provoked a lot of huffing and puffing from the god squad.

    I thought it was a tidy parallel: both god and a definable, exclusive category of stuff called “art” are articles of faith in a higher authority.

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