Magazine article The Spectator

Where Are Today's Heroes?

Magazine article The Spectator

Where Are Today's Heroes?

Article excerpt

The Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group has retired to seek private sponsorship for the next two temporary statues, Marc Quinn's white marble sculpture of a pregnant disabled artist, and Thomas Schütte's Perspex model, 'Hotel for the Birds'. The group could probably do with a break, after its choice of winners was greeted with a brouhaha that would do the Turner Prize proud.

When the Royal Society of Arts' Prue Leith initiated the fourth plinth project some ten years ago, she thought that it would be fairly easy to find a statue somewhere to fill Trafalgar Square's gap. Numerous public consultations, three committees and (soon to be) five temporary statues later, the question looks more complicated.

It is difficult to think of a less auspicious moment over the past 160 years for embarking on this project. Ours is an age that lacks common values, strong ideologies or popular heroes, and is suspicious of all forms of authority. One public consultation suggested such luminaries as Batman and Winnie the Pooh for the plinth, and gave Tony Blair the same number of votes - one - as Idi Amin. And if Nelson's Column marks the self-confidence of Britain's 19th-century elite, the fiasco of the Millennium Dome suggests that New Labour isn't going to be building columns any time soon.

The RSA soon decided that old-style monuments were passé, so initiated a programme exhibiting works of contemporary art, beginning in 1999. Yet rather than leaving traditional monuments behind, the temporary artworks have focused on critically assessing and undermining them. Mark Wallinger's 'Ecce Homo', a small figure of Christ, his eyes closed, perched on the edge of the plinth, was set up to contrast with Nelson's elevation and purposeful gaze. Stefan Gee's model of Tomahawk cruise missiles used wood harvested from the same forest as that used to construct the ships that fought the Battle of Trafalgar, and aimed 'to explore the concept of victory and its commemoration in the 21st century'. Marc Quinn's piece is in this vein, but seems to be storming in where others have trodden more carefully. Working in the white marble of classical statues, he represented somebody who would be seen as the diametrical opposite to the classical hero - saying that the piece will add 'some femininity' to the square's 'triumphant male statuary', especially the 'phallic male monument' of Nelson's Column.

It is odd to make such a show of bashing Nelson today, given that he was buried so long ago. The British elite pretty much stopped building triumphant statues after the first world war, when the imperialist confidence and assumptions of the 19th century fell away. London's 20th-century monuments tend to be much more ambivalent. Sir Edwin Lutyens's first world war Cenotaph on Whitehall has blank sides rather than heroic figures, and was described by one historian as 'an embodiment of nothingness'. Meanwhile, the bust to the second world war admiral Lord Cunningham in Trafalgar Square's north wall shows him with an uncertain gaze and hunched shoulders. Britain's imperial past is a dead horse that nobody could revive however much they wanted to.

Attacking a long-gone tradition perhaps helps to disguise the ideological vacuum of the present. Rather than presenting our values and leaders on the fourth plinth, we can just snub our noses at the military figures of the past. …

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