What is London’s greatest idea? You might think first of an architectural or engineering achievement, or an invention that has changed the world – and, of course, there’s no shortage of great innovations to choose from.
So why choose an art project? The Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square is arguably the world’s most renowned sculpture commission. It puts contemporary art in the middle of one of London’s most famous locations. And it’s kind of bonkers. At once stellar public art and the source of much argument, the Fourth Plinth is uniquely London.
In what other national square, in which other global city, would you see such a bold move? We’ve seen a naked, pregnant, disabled woman, a giant blue cockerel and a big bronze thumbs-up, all at the very heart of London life.
Far from the white-walled, rarefied environment of an art gallery, the plinth is never in a vacuum or disconnected from the real world. Trafalgar Square is not only the geographic centre of the city – the point from which all distances from the capital are calculated – it is also the place where the nation comes together to celebrate, commemorate, protest and mourn.
Putting bold contemporary art in the midst of this loaded and symbolic environment is not without risk. But the Fourth Plinth artists have embraced the conundrum of what to put there and tackled such thorny and diverse subjects as beauty, identity, sexism and religion. Artworks have included a ship in a bottle that seeks to unpick colonialism, a skeleton of a horse that critiques global capitalism and a re-creation of an ancient monument that was destroyed by war.
For artists, making a sculpture for the Fourth Plinth means exposure on many levels – to the wind and rain, to pigeons and to people. Taxi drivers, tourists, schoolchildren and the great British public all become art critics, creating a debate about contemporary art that is unparalleled. The Fourth Plinth is the public realm equivalent of a Twitterstorm.
Debate is not new to the Fourth Plinth. Before it was home to contemporary art, it was meant to support a statue of William IV, which was to be funded by public donations. After the sponsors failed to raise enough, it was left empty for 150 years. Arguments raged intermittently about who should appear upon it, with suggestions ranging from Shakespeare to David Beckham, Diana to Darwin.
Then, one day in 1994, the celebrated chef and businesswoman, Prue Leith, then the Chair of the RSA, was travelling past the empty plinth when she decided to grasp the nettle with a call for action. A government report followed and recommended rolling contemporary art commissions. At the same time, responsibility for Trafalgar Square (inclusive of all plinths) was transferred to the newly elected Mayor of London, and I found the project sitting on my desk to take forward.
A Fourth Plinth Commission now oversees the choices, putting decisions about artists and projects in the hands of experts. We have seen an array of wonderful and thought-provoking sculptures. Anthony Gormley took the idea of “public art” to the extreme – the public became the art. Some 2,400 members of the public, chosen through a lottery, spent an hour each on the plinth. They could do whatever they wanted as long as it was legal.
The work became an eccentric portrait of the nation, capturing the imagination with its 24/7 live stream, millions of web hits, marriage proposals and nakedness. When the work made it onto BBC Radio 4’s The Archers, I remember thinking, “That’s it: The Fourth Plinth has officially gone mainstream.” Marc Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnant, on the other hand, confronted all the taboos: Alison was naked, pregnant and disabled. Opinion was polarised. Some people were offended, others thought it was ugly, but then a letter landed on my desk that said: “Thank you…I am a disabled woman and have always wanted to have a child and this sculpture has given me the permission to do that.” It made me cry.
So, for me, the Fourth Plinth is a brilliant, very London institution. It regularly appears on lists of “reasons to love London” and, given that most of the statues in the capital are white, male and military, it offers a refreshing perspective. London is the global centre for visual culture, home to Frieze Art Fair, and the most visited museum of modern art on the planet, Tate Modern.
And it’s fitting that contemporary sculpture has a place amid the capital’s historic monuments. The Fourth Plinth keeps us on our toes and makes us stop and look at our surroundings instead of rushing past, lost in our phones. The Fourth Plinth speaks to our values: we are an open, international and creative city.
It makes me proud that London has the confidence and guts to put bold, contemporary work in such a space. For all these reasons, I love the Fourth Plinth. It’s definitely one of our capital’s greatest ideas: democracy in action and the ultimate artistic challenge.
Justine Simons is London’s deputy mayor for culture and the creative industries. This article also appears in the second edition of Centre for London’s London ideas magazine, a journal on urban innovation. The current Fourth Plinth work is Michael Rakowitz’s The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (pictured).