Fourth Plinth

Fourth Plinth
City of Westminster
12 February 2007

Trafalgar Square’s north-western plinth was built in 1841 as part of Charles Barry’s grand layout for the square. The plinth was intended to hold a statue of William IV, but this was never made and it remains without a permanent occupant.

In 1999, the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (RSA) commissioned a series of changing contemporary artworks for the plinth. The first of these was Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo, a life-size, marble-resin cast of Jesus standing at the edge of the plinth, dwarfed by its surroundings. After a year, this was replaced by Bill Woodrow’s bronze of a face, book and tree, Regardless of History. Then in 2001, Rachel Whiteread installed Monument, an upturned transparent resin cast of the plinth, like an immense glacier mint.

In 2002, Simon Hughes, the then Liberal Democrat home-affairs spokesman, suggested to Radio 4’s Today programme that the empty platform would be an ideal spot for a memorial statue of the Queen Mother. The idea was not, however, taken up by the Greater London authority (GLA), who are responsible for Trafalgar Square. The same year, they ordered the removal of a waxwork of David Beckham, put on the pedestal without permission by Madame Tussauds.

The GLA decided to repeat the success of the RSA’s scheme by commissioning more temporary works of art for the plinth. A shortlist was drawn up of six artworks.

Chris Burden proposed his Toy Skyscraper As Tall As a Real Building, which would made of Erector (the American equivalent of Meccano). Sokari Douglas Camp would have put a bronze of anti-war protesters on the plinth, No-O-War No-O-War-R. For another war-related sculpture Mannequin, Stefan Gec would have had two Tomahawk cruise missiles carved from English oak. This One’s for the Pigeons (Oi! Pigeons, Over Here!) was Sarah Lucas’s proposal, a Ford Fiesta covered in fake bird shit; this would, no doubt, be added to by the square’s “rats with wings”.

One of the two successful entries was Mark Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnant, which was unveiled in September 2005. The large hand-carved Italian-marble statue was modelled on Quinn’s friend and fellow artist, who suffers from phocomelia, resulting in her shortened legs and no arms.

The other was Thomas Schütte’s Hotel for the Birds, another pigeon-themed sculpture in the shape of a brightly coloured Perspex architectural model. This would be installed in 2007 after Alison Lapper Pregnant is taken down.

Among the critics of the Mark Quinn’s sculpture was the Telegraph’s Alice Thomson.

If Quinn’s statue was beautiful, thought-provoking or striking, all could be forgiven. But it’s not. It’s blatant, shocking, bad art, with a price tag of £150,000.1

Matthew Collings (of This Is Modern Art fame) dismissed it as, “purely empty, deeply bland and silly”.2 Adrian Searle of the Guardian was a little kinder, but wrote: “In the light of Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo, it strikes me as a warmed-over idea.”3

Criticism was especially harsh at the Evening Standard, whose Brian Sewell was not, of course, keen on either of the winning artworks.

I dislike the Quinn intensely and I can see no virtue in the Schütte. It’s a gloriously fudged decision and they better try and get it right next time.4

According to the Standard, ordinary Londoners were also not in favour of either of the commissioned sculptures being installed on the plinth. A poll carried out by the paper found that 70% of people interviewed did not, in fact, approve of any of the shortlisted artworks.4

Shortly before the installation of Alison Lapper Pregnant, the Standard stirred up yet more controversy, reporting that the GLA had spent £195,000 of public funds on the sculpture, as a sponsor could not be found.5

Hotel for the Birds comes down in 2009, after which the fourth plinth will — at least temporarily — revert to being empty. (Last edited: 20 May 2008)

Update 20 May 2008:

Thomas Schütte’s sculpture was finally unveiled in November 2007. It had been made of glass instead of Perspex and renamed Model for a Hotel 2007, as the artist did not want to get involved in what he called “the pigeon war”.6

In January 2008, six proposals were announced for another temporary artwork to replace Schütte’s in 2009. The shortlisted artists are Bob and Roberta Smith, Jeremy Deller, Anish Kapoor, Tracey Emin, Yinka Shonibare and Anthony Gormley. After a public consultation, the winner will be chosen in May.

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