a monumental DEBATE STILL RAGES on in TRAFALGAR SQUARE
By Cherry Irvine: Arts Columnist
It is often the case with history that the things not planned turn out the best. This is true for Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth that was supposed to hold a statue of William IV on horseback, but for one reason or another it never happened. For over 150 years people debated over the future of what we now call the Fourth Plinth. In 1998 the RSA (Royal Society of Arts) commissioned three temporary sculptures for the bare plinth and since then it has hosted thirteen diverse artworks in total, ranging from the poignant to the more bizarre.
Last Thursday the newest artwork to be held on the iconic plinth was unveiled. Entitled The End, Heather Phillipson’s satirical sculpture of whipped cream pushes the physical boundaries of the plinth, literally spilling over its sides. The cream is topped not only with a cherry, but also a huge fly and a functioning drone, which records the square below. The statue is unsettling and can be seen to reflect these strange times.
Now it seems that the plinth’s future is up for debate again. The Guardian’s Claire Armistead has called for an end to the public art project in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and its implications for historical monuments. She suggests in this period of great change to instead “invest in a new permanence”. A new monument for a new age.
The temporary status of the Fourth Plinth is one of the many reasons why it remains so popular. Could you name any of the men commemorated by the other three plinths that make up Trafalgar Square? Nowhere else in the UK does contemporary art have such a prolific platform. Every day tourists flock to Trafalgar Square, London’s cultural centre, making whatever sits upon the plinth an artwork of both national and international significance. Artworks are typically rotated biannually, allowing the Fourth Plinth to remain current and synonymous with the nation’s mood.
Back in 2012, the artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset created a sculpture commenting on the plinth’s long-lost heritage. Powerless Structures, Fig 101 represented a boy astride a rocking horse, echoing the unfulfilled equestrian statue of William IV. Unlike the surrounding monuments that look back on individual historic victories, the bronze horse is about to rock forward into Britain’s future. Displayed in the same year as the London Olympics and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, Powerless Structures stands in stark contrast with Phillipson’s 2020 sculpture The End. Does this decline demonstrate that the end of the Fourth Plinth is inevitable?
Artists are restricted by the dimensions of the plinth, but that has not stopped them from extending the definition of what a monument can be. No other Fourth Plinth commission aimed to reflect British society more than Antony Gormley’s 2009 work One & Other. Every hour for a hundred days a different member of the public would stand on the plinth. Many conducted show-stopping performances, whilst others simply contemplated their iconic surroundings. Gormley’s multifaceted work reflected the transient and ephemeral nature of the Fourth Plinth.
It would be a mistake to install a permanent monument on the plinth, even to an “unsung carer” as Armistead suggests. Whatever stood there would soon blend into the square and become as easily forgotten as the other three statues. The BLM movement has taught us that history cannot be pinned down to a permanent monument. Can one sculpture even begin to sum up the past twenty-one years, or even the last six months?
If you have a spare moment, take a look at the Fourth Plinth’s previous twelve sculptures. You will find not a mirror of Britain through the years, but artworks that create meaningful dialogues within society. This is not the end, but only the beginning of one of the world’s most successful and significant public art projects.