Anthony Gormley’s public art installation on the Fourth Plinth of London’s Trafalgar Square started up on Monday, when Rachel Wardell stepped off the cherry-picker and onto the little stage that will hold 2400 people, one at a time, for the next 100 days. Actually, some other guy beat her to it, climbing up the plinth to make some protest about people smoking. Or was it a protest against the smoking ban? Or maybe I didn’t imagine it – he wants to ban smoking in films! A contemporary art installation kicks off with a plea for greater censorship? Hey, it’s a free country. In any case, he made way for the chosen few who, given plinthe blanche to do whatever they like for an hour, garnered an inordinate amount of international media attention.
I must say, I’m sure this hubbub will die down, and One & Other, as it’s called, will settle into something closer to its original potential – a cumulative experiment in collective responses to the experience of being temporarily monumentalised. The media will surely lose its appetite if the plinth becomes advertising space, a busker’s patch or a speaker’s corner; there are plenty of places for that already. I’ve enjoyed dipping into the live feed today on the official website: there’s a nice novelty value in checking what each person has thought of to do with their time (as I type this, a guy in a green t-shirt seems to be stitching himself into a coccoon of some sort, perhaps to shut out the running commentary from the accumulating youths at the base of the plinth), but it’s not a competition. I take a special interest in this, because I’ll be taking to the plinth myself at 8am on 23rd July, and I’m not planning to put on a show. I’ll be taking a notebook, a pen and a camera, recording my responses (I’ll also be muttering stuff to the webcam if you’d like to tune in, and hopefully I’ll stay out of earshot of the people below when necessary) and enjoying the paradox of having an hour all to myself (hold my calls, please) in full view of London rush hour.
Arguably, this is not Anthony Gormley’s project any more. He’s released it like a balloon into the public domain, where other hands will mould it and define its legacy, but the conceptual basis is his, and it’s success or failure will ultimately be pinned on him as a prominent author and unofficial art laureate. One & Other fits quite neatly into Gormley’s overarching project across many of his works to situate the bodies and works of ordinary people in prestigious galleries and public spaces. Adrian Searle in The Guardian considers the implications:
Gormley’s idea is a rich one. It combines a very old idea about images, and sculptures on plinths in public spaces, with the digital age and the spectacle of reality TV. We know that paying attention to an experiment often changes its outcome. Those who stand and watch have all sorts of expectations and fantasies. The square below is a space for the curious and the ghoulish, for voyeurs and louts; it, as well as the plinth, is a space of transit and for waiting, and for all sorts of performances and gestures. We are all actors here, under the watchful cameras of Sky Arts. Gormley offers the possibility both for action and inaction. This is where the project’s magic lies – and also its danger. It is probably his best work, even if it risks bringing out the worst in people. The artist has set up the conditions, and what follows is unknown.
Some contributors to the Guardian‘s blog are perhaps less detailed in their responses, but occasionally inspired:
06 Jul 09, 4:00pm (about 6 hours ago)
I’m up there tomorrow guys.
Come by and let me piss on your faces from on high!
It’s modern art!
06 Jul 09, 4:02pm (about 6 hours ago)
I like Gormelys’ sculptures but this is shit. What is it? a cross between a David Blaine stunt and an Andy Warhol saying?
06 Jul 09, 3:20pm (about 7 hours ago)
I love this idea but I fear that all too many people will use their allotted time to publicise causes and organisations. In Edinburgh a year or two back we had the cow sculptures everywhere and each one done by different organisations. Some of them were beautiful and intriguing but then you get people like the local commercial radio station who just stuck an advert for their breakfast show on the side. The trouble with opening up a platform for people to say something is that so few people have anything interesting to say.
Same could be said for these comment boards of course!
I will from now on be making my comments through the medium of dance.
06 Jul 09, 1:41pm (about 9 hours ago)
Just saw it on the telly.
06 Jul 09, 4:28pm (about 6 hours ago)
I’m not in a rush to take part. I’m sure that one day my plinth will come.
Maybe One & Other is conceptual art’s version of an online discussion forum – it portrays and provokes an eclectic set of aesthetics and opinions and is subject to minimal content control (we’ll see if the organisers’ “hands off” approach to policing the display will hold true throughout). As a result, it won’t entertain all of the people all of the time, but it will yield diverse nuggets of interest, and ultimately put an open forum in a space usually reserved for the institutionally approved.
Tom Lubbock’s appraisal in The Independent suggests that the project has not yet hit the groove that it could attain if allowed to break out of the need to entertain people immediately. Rather than rushing to respond to the crowd’s demand for them to “do something“, already a common shout from the base of the plinth, the participants should be serene:
A stationary occupant activates the power of this pedestal, this framing device. It demonstrates what happens when you take something, something without any inherent interest, and put it a focus on it. It has to be something pretty boring, or the effect won’t work – or at least it won’t show. But when you find that you’re looking at nothing special, or at nobody special, but gripped, you know you’re in the grip of a picture. […] If the Plinthers can only learn to be still, if they can just refrain for an hour from expressing themselves, they’ll have a power they never imagined. There is such a thing as absolute plain ordinariness. It can be absolutely fascinating.
[The photograph in this post is borrowed from the Flickr Group “Plinth Watch 2009“, which is pooling pictures from the event. Click on the image for credits.]