The Big Pedestal

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Alison Lapper Pregnant/Marc Quinn/2005 — Photo: Dan Chung

Here’s a quick link to my piece about Martin Puryear in the new issue of Time. Now on to other things.

The first thing — a few months ago I was wondering in this space whether it might not be a good idea for the U.S. to have something like Britain’s Turner Prize, the award that goes annually to some Brit artist and stirs up a lot of media coverage. The British love to argue over whether it sensationalizes art, or trivializes it or whatever, but for a few months every year, from the time the four finalists are selected until the winner is announced, it certainly does publicize it.

I was thinking about this the other day as I walked through Trafalgar Square in London and noticed that they were changing the art on what’s called the Fourth Plinth. That’s the large pedestal in the northwest corner of the Square, just outside the National Gallery. The other three hold statues of 19th century notables, including George IV. When it was built in 1841 the Fourth Plinth was intended for an equestrian statue, but the money ran out and the plinth remained empty for more than a century. In 1998 the city decided to put it to use as the site for a succession of contemporary works. The most recent of these was Alison Lapper Pregnant, a colossal marble statue of Lapper, a disabled British artist, by Marc Quinn, who was best known until then for that 1991 self-portrait head he made from his own frozen blood, a piece that never interested me much the two times I saw it.

And when I first heard about his statue of Lapper, it seemed to me it was likely to be the last word in sensationalist kitsch. But when I actually saw it for the first time last year, all 15 tons of it, so much whiter than the grey pavement and stone all around it, on that plinth in the middle of busy London, it struck me differently. It was strange, strangely moving, and not in the least grotesque or pitying. Contemporary identity politics — racial identity, sexual identity, disability identity — can get pretty tiresome, the 21st century equivalent of Victorian sentimentality. But this work literally rose above all that.

So I had been looking forward to seeing it again. But when I got to London last week it had been removed to make way for the next piece, Model for a Hotel 2007 by the German artist Thomas Schutte.

Model for a Hotel 2007/Thomas Schutte/2007 — Image: Fourth Plinth Project

I doubt that Schutte’s cooly conceived hybrid of sculpture and architecture, once it’s in place, will stir up as much conversation as Quinn’s work. But simply by occupying that very visible location, it will draw the attention of millions of people to what art is and what it can do. (Or fail to do — take it away, Tom!) Do we have anything to compare with this in the U.S.? In New York not long ago we had The Gates, the Christo and Jeanne-Claude project, a completely captivating months-long event. And Creative Time, the New York-based arts organization, does a good job of producing public works around the city. I can’t imagine Washington, D.C. coming up with anything as daring as the Fourth Plinth project, and I wouldn’t want to. (It makes my head hurt just to think about the political free-for-all that would turn into.) And anyway, the U.S. doesn’t have a single centerpiece metropolis, as London is for the U.K. and Paris is for France. But wouldn’t it be great to have one location in each of the major American cities that was the focus of so much public attention and curiousity? It might even be worth all the political squabbling and artworld intrigue you would have to put up with to have it happen.