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Home > Culture and Society

Squaring Off

17 September 2005

Once the haunt of several hundred thousand pigeons and half as many seed-peddlers, Trafalgar Square is now haunted only by the curious emptiness of its fourth plinth. That, and several hundred thousand hysterical cricket fans jumping in the fountains. But the empty plinth has stood for years as a discomforting vacuum, a yawning chasm where solid ground should be, a silence punctuated by a small cough where there should be laughter. And being so public, and so enigmatic and like, saying something about the charismatic presence of um, absence, it was always going to attract modern artists like similes attract cliché.

Various artists have been commissioned to plonk something on the plinth over the last decade or so, and the roars and shrieks of aesthetic outrage (mostly from people with no aesthetic sense, who would hesitate in an attempt to spell 'aesthetic') have followed with a grating inevitability. True, with a public space the moth-eaten old anti-censorship argument that 'if you don't like it, you don'have to t watch it' doesn't really wash; but there's always the sprightly retort of 'if you don't like it... just shut up and go away and stop belming as if the sight of a big block of resin offends your moral sense like the sight of all the homeless people setting up their sleeping bags next to it should'. So there's been something to do with Oscar Wilde (it should really have been Stephen Fry, since 'plinth' is his favourite word), a tree with rapacious roots clutching the base, and a translucent cast of the inside of the plinth itself. (Stephen was right, bless him. 'Plinth'. Say it aloud without smiling and you can admit your failure as a human being.) And as of this week, there will be a marble sculpture of a heavily-pregnant, severely disabled woman, herself an artist. Wind them up, and watch them go.

The great thing about the empty plinth is that you could put anything - literally anything you can think of - on there, and then run for cover as the heated arguments begin. Squeals from people who think there just aren't enough stiff sculptures of military men schoolchildren won't recognise, on or off their horses. Hoots from people who have spent so much of their lives decrying all modern art as a laughable contradiction in terms, imagining Tracey Emin being eaten by hyenas is the only way they can get an erection. Snarls from artists modern and traditional, as well as art critics, who can explain at mind-boggling length why this particular piece is a mockery, or just an iota short of greatness. But put a naked, pregnant woman with no arms on public display, and try finding anyone with a pulse and no opinion. That's the stuff opinions are made of, man - immediate reaction is mandatory, involuntary.

One immediate reaction is to fall over suffering from sensationalism overload. The sculpture itself is almost overshadowed, invalidated, by the facts of itself - it might as well be a block of sandstone with THIS IS CONTROVERSIAL carved into it. This lets a lot of people off work early - they can dismiss it as more calculatedly in-yer-face than Jordan going shopping wearing only a roll of gaffer tape, and go home. But this is a waste, as there is so much mileage in it. The list of talking points couldn't fit on a roll of Andrex made for the mighty cheeks of Michelangelo's David; before you get anywhere near the artistic merit of the thing (it does have an eerily vacant look, like a shop dummy, and looks rather more concretey than marbley) there's the question of whether it does anything
for disabled people, for disabled artists, for female artists, for women, for pregnant women; whether it 'should' be gazing out upon Nelson's arse in the first place; how to say you really don't like it without being mistaken for an awful bigot and cast out onto the street; whether it's relevant to point out that Nelson too was disabled (and then does this make the new statue even more resonant or just dispensable?); and if all it really is, is a slightly wry comment on the classic nude of art known to countless generations of giggling children. It's a thing about which much stuff will be said. It is a stimulating temporary addition to the environment, an injection of something vital and gobsmacking in a staid and familiar space, and so ultimately a Good Thing.

So far, the Disability Rights Commission likes it, and the editor of the British Art Journal thinks it is 'horrible'. No one who passes by it is going to have nothing to say, even if in the vast majority of semi-literate skateboarding cases the only comment is going to be 'Look! Tits! Ugh no arms! Ooh pregnant ugh. Tits!' Hardly something you can say about the other three plinth-sitters. (Well, none of them have tits.)



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