Opinion

Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth should honour our past struggles

John Bird has seen a few historical, iconic events in Trafalgar Square, and wonders whether The Fourth Plinth should reflect them

Monument by Rachel Whiteread

Monument by Rachel Whiteread stood on the plinth in 2001. Image: Sion Touhig/Getty Images

It has become the tradition in London’s Trafalgar Square to place a temporary sculpture or object on an empty plinth, now known as the Fourth Plinth. Most of the pieces chosen have been comical; one I rem-ember looking like a large multi-coloured, muffin-like cake. Another, an elongated thumb.  

But a problem has developed for the makers of these objets d’art, it would seem. The scheme has been running for a few decades and most of the pieces have not found a home after their two-year stint on the plinth. A few weeks ago the renowned and much-loved sculptor and Turner Prize winner Rachel Whiteread suggested an end to this process. Because most of the objects have subsequently been kept in storage at great expense. 

I have not kept my eye on the plinth because I find most of the work does nothing for me. It might be because I feel I saw it all in the ’60s when artists like Claes Oldenburg produced giant renderings of ice cream cones or garden trowels etc, and artist Jim Dine drawings and works of similar objects. When you see these things for the first time you might be stirred and inspired, but when they just seem to be more of the same your eye might tire. 

The piece Whiteread did for the plinth – that looked like a plinth with a glass plinth on top of it – failed afterwards to find another public place to be displayed. So she is miffed, quite rightly, that it seems a waste of space and money and time to keep making things, displaying them for a short period and then bunging them in storage. So stopping this would stop the storage problem. 

Alas, most art is in storage. My self-portrait for the National Portrait Gallery is on some archived shelf. Most of our big public galleries have thousands of works that they cannot provide space for. Recently a storage facility burnt down in East London and millions of pounds worth of contemporary art went up in flames.  

Marc Quinn’s sculpture of disabled artist Alison Lapper was to me the highpoint of the temporary plinth arrangement. Others may have had something significant or thoughtful or creative to say, but as I said I haven’t been keeping an eye on what’s being done. 

Yet recently, reflecting on the plinth, I was of a mind to make my own sculpture. I even had a title for it. I had done sculpting in my youth and of late have thought of making pieces that are not my usual painterly artworks; rather they would be strong and black and stand around telling some kind of story. 

Having slept in Trafalgar Square as a runaway – which is possible under a kind of low wall that runs around the parts of the square – I have been attached to the square for most of my life. Aged 15 and a rough sleeper, I stumbled upon a vast 100,000-strong Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament demo in 1961 and stayed for the chicken sandwiches and Coca-Cola. Later, arrested for sitting down and bundled violently into a police van for a night in a cell with 30 other men, I regretted the sandwiches and my opportunism. 

Decades later I had the pleasure, at a Labour Party march in the dying days of John Major’s administration, of standing on the base of Nelson’s Column beside the lions and speaking to 25,000 people about the need to end poverty. It was electric.  

And then of course there is film footage of earlier demos against fascism from before the war. 

Why not, I reasoned recently, have a sculpture that recognised the radical traditions of Trafalgar Square, how it was a serious part of the political process of changing laws and guaranteeing freedoms. 

Vietnam demos, anti-racist demos, gay rights, women’s rights; there was a plethora of events that, at times, echoed around Trafalgar Square; and yet where was memory lodged? Why is it necessary to give the Fourth Plinth over to some individual artistic imagination and not to our own collective imaginations that brought about many of our freedoms? 

I made several early sketches some weeks ago and may well begin making Do You Really Want to Smash Capitalism and Have a Full Sex Life? which, in some ways, reflected most of the demos I went on. Sex and its rights, and politics and its rights. 

I walk through Trafalgar Square now and reflect also on the sense of imagination and support that the great church of St Martin-in-the-Fields has been giving to homeless people over the centuries. Standing on the northern corner of the square, its steps are a good vantage point from which to look out over Trafalgar Square and ruminate on how rough it got at times when demonstrators clashed and others protested peacefully. Bloody Sunday in 1887 will stand out as one of the worst, when many demonstrators ended the Sunday afternoon covered in blood. 

But where is the monument to our former struggles? There is as yet no plinth celebrating that tumultuous history. 

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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