The fool on the pedestal; Trafalgar's plinth an ambitious and messy experiment in popular art
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 6 October 2009)

Since July a public event called One & Other has been occupying, for 24 hours a day, a huge plinth nearly seven metres above Trafalgar Square in London. The activity there has been reaching people all over the world, streaming live on the Internet. When I made a recent visit by directing my browser to,a dancer was the star attraction for that particular hour. She took a collapsible pole up to the plinth with her, stripped down to panties, and (to her obvious delight) pole-danced in the style of the women who work the Bada Bing bar on The Sopranos. Unlikely though it seems, this was officially an event in the history of art. It was also fresh confirmation that Britain has become the true home of everything that is ambitiously idiotic in visual culture. The noble and capacious Trafalgar Square has a plinth designed long ago to hold a royal statue that never materialized.

In recent years, various art objects have been placed there, under the direction of the London mayor. In 2009, that exceptional platform has been given to 2,400 individuals (one per hour for 100 days, ending Oct. 14), each of them allowed to use the time for uninhibited self-expression.

Antony Gormley, the sculptor who won the Turner Prize in 1994, orchestrated this amiable madness. He sees the people on the plinth as "living monuments." Asked whether his project is art, Gormley says, "Well, who cares?"

He has a grander purpose in mind, to create a composite portrait of modern Britain "in all its wonderful, multicultural difference." Those occupying the plinth were chosen on the basis of letters they wrote but the final list was weighted to reflect regional and ethnic populations.

Plinthers (that's the official term) are allowed to take up with them whatever what they can carry (but no sharp objects -- and no barbecues). Many take cameras or guitars or both. Wire netting near the top of the plinth prevents accidents and makes it impossible for someone to stage a live-on-the-Web suicide.

Some fool in the Times of London wrote that One & Other portrays a nation much as artists such as Reynolds or Gainsborough once did, except that they depicted the ruling elites while in our "more democratic era the ruling class is less important than the cross-section." This expression of current British populism has caught on among supporters of the project. They somehow equate Joshua Reynolds painting Samuel Johnson with a plinther, "a keen assistant Beaver Scout Leader," ineptly raising a pup tent on the plinth, apologizing that "nobody said camping was easy."

The project turned into an unlikely combination of outlandish pretension and abject humility, the pretension being Gormley's, the humility belonging to the plinthers. Placed in the glare of publicity, few of them rise to the occasion. If they had only a few minutes they might come up with something original. An hour defeats them. In no time they're blathering, reading out text messages sent to them by viewers, including sometimes their parents. One & Other is the kind of thing that gives freedom a bad name.

One plinther rode a unicycle. Vanessa Thorpe, media editor of the London Observer, dressed as Marie Antoinette and handed out pieces of cake. Another woman in princess costume announced she was waiting for her prince to come. Many dance or sing, some with a trace of evident talent. Mike Figgis, the film director, occupied an hour but didn't say much more than anyone else. He played his trumpet. A woman from Scotland gave a solo oboe recital of traditional airs. She read out a list of friends and supporters, as if accepting an Oscar. As her hour ended she played Auld Lang Syne, bowed and descended.

A few plinthers used the time to promote causes. One man pleaded for the life of a British woman on death row in Texas. A student from Yorkshire spent her time urging that the Elgin Marbles be handed over to the museum in Athens. One man, promoting a breast cancer prevention campaign, brought paper airplanes to fly from the plinth, carrying his message. The wind didn't co-operate, and perhaps there was a design flaw, so the airplanes fell like stones onto the square below. There are reasons why performers rehearse.

Katherine, from Nova Scotia, spent her time writing a letter, the recipient undisclosed. Rather than giving a performance, she preferred to reflect on the difference between private and public identity, proving "you can reflect on who you are irregardless of the labels of identity that society has given you."

There were a few rare references to what most people mean when they say "art." A woman artist took off her shirt, smeared paint on her body, then rolled around on a piece of canvas. This was apparently a tribute to Yves Klein, the painter who 50 years ago used female models covered in blue paint as "living brushes," dragging them naked across his canvases. In late September, a young man occupied the plinth dressed in suit and bowler hat with a photo of a green apple held in front of his face, making him look something like a famous painting by someone he called "the Belgian bloke," Rene Magritte.

When I switched on late one night a naked man was talking to the crowd. The best part was watching the camera operators and the director trying to show him only from behind. Nudity on the plinth had already been judged legal. A few weeks earlier a passerby in Trafalgar Square had complained to London police about another plinther's nakedness, saying his three children were shocked. The coppers declined to interfere; apparently their superiors had declared this a prosecution-free zone. The plinther explained why he chose nudity as his means of expression: "I was chatting to my mates about it; they see me as a bit of an exhibitionist. This seemed the natural way to go."

One & Other recalls a period in the 1960s when "happenings" were organized by artists anxious to be the next new thing. Happenings also placed before an audience many people who felt they should be there but couldn't quite explain why. The great French poet, Paul Valery, after watching another revolutionary performance several generations ago, delivered the final word, "Everything changes but the avant-garde."

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