Good morning, its 3.30pm as I write this. I grew up in London, and by London I mean the awful middle class suburbs, so sometimes I go to Trafalgar Square for giant pillow fights, or for a chill time, or because I generally have to walk past it to get to theatreland. Trafalgar Square is actually pretty nice but the point I’m trying to make is that I’ve seen a lot, and I mean a lot, of different things on top of the fourth plinth.
In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, the fourth plinth is an empty plinth in front of the national portrait gallery. In case you don’t know what a plinth is, I can’t really help you. Miranda Hart once described plinth as the king of words, with moist of course being the queen.
Speaking of queens, that is exactly the point I’m trying to make. The fourth plinth was originally meant to have a statue of William IV on a horse, but it was never installed. It’s now empty because when Queen Elizabeth II dies, they’re going to put a statue of her riding a horse up there. Until then, it’s a mayor of London thing to commission different artists to put something up there for a bit. Not to brag but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen most of the installations. That being said, let’s talk about them, in order of how much I actually care:
13. ‘David Beckham Waxwork’, 2002
This was a waxwork by Madam Tussauds, and was taken down very very quickly. It’s a perfect symbol of the early 2000s. Need I say more?
12. ‘Model for a Hotel’, Thomas Schütte, 2007
So, this was originally meant to be called ‘Hotel for the Birds’, but Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London at the time, was out to get rid of as many pigeons as he possibly could, especially the ones in Trafalgar Square, so the name was changed.
Listen, the sculpture looks cool, I won’t deny. Thing is, I know nothing about art and to me its just a pile of colourful perspex. It doesn’t help that when I was researching it, all the artist really said about it was ‘eeehh, I don’t know what it means tbh’, and I prefer my art to be clearly explained to me.
11. ‘One & Other’, Antony Gormley, 2009
Antony Gormley is actually a pretty cool sculptor and that’s one of the reasons I’m not a huge fan of ‘One & Other’. I’ll give it the credit it’s due: this is the installation that really made people start noticing the fourth plinth, but besides that? I don’t care about it at all.
For 100 days, 24 hours a day, somebody got to be up on that plinth for an hour doing whatever they wanted. That’s 24,000 random people showing London what they’ve got. It’s a cool idea, it was cool to look at. What it is not, however, is a sculpture, so it loses points for that.
10. ‘Regardless of History’, Bill Woodrow: March 2000
The concept behind ‘Regardless of History’ is actually pretty cool. It’s meant to be about nature’s dominance over humanity, hence the tree crushing the fallen head. I thought it was great until I started to read reviews of it, and my impressionable soul realised that it’s literally the least popular installation to ever grace the fourth plinth.
The problem is essentially that it’s really, really bronze, and ‘heavy’ to look at? I think? And that the symbolism is too on the nose. Again, I’m extremely impressionable, so I have to agree.
9. ‘Hahn/Cock’, Katharina Fritsch 2013
“Big blue cock erected on fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square”, reads a Guardian headline on 25th July 2013. And really, what more is there to say? The blue cockerel was created by a French sculptor, ironic as other plinths celebrate victory over the French.
Apparently, the cockerel is a symbol of regeneration, awakening and strength. It’s nice, and it’s funny watching Boris Johnson stumble through his introduction of the installation. It’s also probably one of the more memorable plinths, but it’s staying low on the list because I’m Deep now, I’m a deep person, and this is a glorified dick joke.
8. ‘Powerless Structures, Fig 101’, Elmgreen & Dragset, 2012
This sculpture is a reversal of the other statues in Trafalgar Square; instead of a war hero on a horse being commemorated for his victories, it shows a child and the hope for the future. The sculptors said it “honours the everyday battles of growing up”, which really struck a chord with me because quite frankly, childhood sucks.
Another cool thing is that the child is deliberately looking away from George IV because he’s ‘afraid of him’, and you have to walk round to the awkward side of the plinth to meet his eyes.
7. ‘Monument’, Rachel Whiteread, June 2001
It’s just really, really pretty, y’know? Like genuinely ethereally beautiful. It was unveiled late, because there were so many issues when creating it. Unsurprising, considering it was the largest resin sculpture ever made, and entirely self funded! Is that not amazing?
I never got to see it, because I was three years old – but actually I did probably see it and don’t remember it because I definitely have pictures of my parents taking me to trafalgar square to see the pigeons around that time? It’s such a contrast to the dense grey stone of the rest of Trafalgar Square (and the city, to be honest…), I just really like it.
6. ‘Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle’, Yinka Shonibare MBE, 2010
Ah, now we get into the Really Frickin’ Cool part of the list. ‘Nelson’s ship in a bottle’ is a to-scale replica of Nelson’s ship Victory, which he died on in the Battle of Trafalgar. It’s also the biggest ever ship in a bottle. The sails are made of Batik fabric, Indonesian fabric sold in North Africa. The installation was made by a British-Nigerian artist whose work explores multiculturalism and colonialism.
I don’t know much about art, but here’s what Shonibare himself said about it that (obviously) sums it up perfectly: “The sails are a metaphor for the global connections of contemporary people. This piece celebrates the legacy of Nelson – and the legacy that victory at the battle of Trafalgar left us is Britain’s contact with the rest of the world, which has in turn created the dynamic, cool, funky city that London is.”
5. ‘Gift Horse’, Hans Haacke, 2015
All the other statues in Trafalgar Square have horses, and this one is a skeleton! Awesomesauce! It’s based on a different old 19th century artist dude’s sketches, and you see that little bow around it’s leg? That’s the coolest part – it’s a live ticker tape of the London Stock Exchange!
It’s a comment on the link between Power, Money, and History, but if Boris’ example is anything to go by it can really be interpreted any way you goddamn want. The reason I love it is because it’s this comment on capitalism and the stock market and how it destroys things, leaving this horse looking like it’s been eaten alive. It reminds me of the 2008 crash. I love it.
4. ‘Alison Lapper Pregnant’, Marc Quinn, 2005
Alison Laper is an artist born with no arms and shortened legs, and has been the subject of several of Quinn’s sculptures. This was made out of a huge block of marble in Italy, and imported over to England. The bright white marble is striking against its backdrop, and so wildly different to the other sculptures in the square. (Also, it has titties, so you KNOW a bunch of people were mad about it).
Her expression and her pose are so noble and courageous in a way you don’t really see in depictions of disabled people, or even pregnant people in general. Again, I don’t know much about art, but this is pretty dang beautiful.
3. ‘The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist’, Michael Rakowitz, 2018
This is the one currently on display, and it wasn’t going to be this high up on the list, mostly because I didn’t really get it. Also, I hadn’t seen it up close and I thought it was a replica of the Rosetta Stone. It’s part of a larger series recreating the thousands of items stolen from the National Museum of Iraq.
Ironically, just around the corner, the British Museum holds several of those stolen items proudly on display. It’s a reminder of the forgotten victims of the Iraq war that America forced its way into, and also it’s made entirely out of food cans which I was really not expecting considering the level of detail.
2. ‘Really Good’, David Shrigley 2016
It’s a giant thumbs up! And it’s by David Shrigley, one of my all-time favourite artists. It could’ve made the top of the list, but I’ll explain why it didn’t when we reach the top of the list. I love David Shrigley. I love his weird sense of humour and equally weird kind of optimism in his work.
Here, he’s trying to make the people of London feel more positivity about life, the economy, the weather, society, and anything else they think is bad. Maybe it’ll end up really good instead. I just love this thing. I think about it a lot.
1. Ecce Homo, Mark Wallinger: July 1999
When this was unveiled, I was less than a year old and not actually living in England, so needless to say I never saw it in the flesh. So let’s start by explaining what it is: it’s Jesus. But, unlike most imagery of Him that you see, he’s not some godly figure, or super ripped, and he’s not hung up on a cross. He’s just a man, tied up and about to be thrown to a lynch mob. Behold the man, indeed.
This was the first statue ever put on the plinth, and probably the best. It’s simple and unobtrusive, and for the first time in my life it really sunk in that Jesus really was just a young man, supposed son of God or not, and he was literally tortured.
I’ll leave you with this quote from the artist, which really cemented this in first place for me. It’s also from a Guardian article I think:
Some people have complained that the towel makes Christ look gay, but Wallinger is dismissive: ‘Yeah, well… if you want someone looking fairly trim and only wearing a loincloth, he will tend to look a bit gay. But it’s nowhere near as blatant as, say, Michelangelo’s Christ in Rome – a very lovingly carved bottom. I was quite aware that that might happen but there’s not a lot I could do about it. And I don’t know that we can presume anything about His sexuality anyway”