/ Aug 25, 2010

"Back and Fourth"

LONDON’S FOURTH PLINTH public art project is beginning to feel like something of an institution, which is perhaps appropriate given its proximity to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. Designed by Sir Charles Barry in 1841 as the support for a conventional equestrian statue, the pedestal on which the series is literally and figuratively based was left unadorned for some 150 years after the money ran out (some things never change). Then, in 1998, the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce commissioned British artists Mark Wallinger, Bill Woodrow, and Rachel Whiteread to produce temporary toppings for the hefty stone block. The results were sufficiently popular that the mayor of London (at the time, the much-loved “Red” Ken Livingstone) initiated, in 2003, the Fourth Plinth Commission as an ongoing contemporary showcase.

According to project director Justine Simons, addressing a buoyant assembly at the Thursday evening launch of the latest round of short-listed proposals, initial suggestions for the plinth included a permanent sculpture of football-and-fashion icon David Beckham, so Londoners might consider themselves lucky that no matter which project is selected from the current crop, it won’t be around for more than a few months. Of the four works that have already occupied the site, Marc Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnant, 2005, a twelve-foot-tall white marble monument to the disabled artist, was perhaps the most critically divisive, while Antony Gormley’s One and Other, 2009, which opened up the plinth to ultra-short-term occupancy by randomly selected applicants, attracted the most public attention. On show now is Yinka Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, 2010, an oversize take on the “impossible” tchotchke given a postcolonial slant.

Institute of Contemporary Arts director Ekow Eshun, following Simons to the empty lectern, went so far as to suggest that the project symbolized the go-ahead values of London as a modern, multicultural city. But while this verged on the platitudinous—as did his suggestion that whichever proposal was successful, the people of London would be “the real winners”—his enthusiasm for ideas with “pleasure at their centers” seemed entirely genuine. Heartfelt too was his characterization of Allora & Calzadilla’s proposal, which suggested connecting an ATM in the side of the plinth to a huge pipe organ on top of it, as “bringing some much-needed joy to the banking process.”

Whitechapel Gallery director Iwona Blazwick had been trailed as a follow-up speaker but seemed committed to one-on-one communication, so attendees were soon free to mingle. The venue for the launch, and for an exhibition of maquettes, was the crypt of local Saint Martin-in-the-Fields church. But while this suggested a supremely atmospheric spot, the eighteenth-century original was in use as a café, leaving “plinthers” to gather in a stark modern extension. Hales Gallery director Paul Hedge helped me identify some of the artists in the crowd, mock-crooning “I Am the Walrus” in characteristically jocular reference to Hew Locke’s extravagant sideburns. One artist who didn’t need pointing out was Turner Prize–winning artist and transvestite potter Grayson Perry, resplendent in couture dress and blond bob. Less interesting to look at but equally in their element were London art scribes Cedar Lewisohn and Oliver Basciano. As for the maquettes, Brian Griffith’s Battenberg, a vast slab of the titular cake constructed from colored bricks, and Mariele Neudecker’s It’s Never Too Late and You Can’t Go Back, a fiberglass relief map of the UK exaggerated vertically into a mountain range, elicited the most curious gazes—though the latter drew some fire for playing to the selectors’ patriotic streak.

One individual present for whom such an accusation would only be taken as a compliment was John Loughrey, aka Captain John. Brandishing a plastic folder stuffed with letters and newspaper clippings, the eccentric former chef accosted me as the party was winding down. “People keep writing about me in books!” he exclaimed, further assuring me that “I’m gonna write my own one day! For charity!” A Princess Diana “superfan” (he was the only member of the public to attend hearings at the Royal Courts of Justice every day of the inquest into the late royal’s death), Loughrey seemed to have redirected his attention toward the plinth, reporting having also shown up on each of the hundred days of Gormley’s project. Clearly a sucker for interactivity, Loughrey tipped Allora & Calzadilla to win.