An iconic plinth and one massive metal rocket
Should statues be elected? From today, people are being invited to vote for the next artwork to go on display in the heart of London – but some would rather leave it to the experts.
Trafalgar Square is one of London’s grandest landmarks. Named for Britain’s greatest naval victory, its centrepiece is a 50m granite column topped by a 5.5m statue of the military hero Horatio Nelson. It is ringed by four seven-tonne lion statues. At each corner of the square stands a bronze statue of a colossal figure from Britain’s past.
Except for the northwest corner. Amidst all this splendour, visitors might be surprised to find on the fourth plinth, not a monument to a soldier, or a politician, or any person at all, but a 10m pile of whipped cream with a cherry, a fly and a drone stuck to its sides.
This is Heather Phillipson’s artwork The End. It has been there since July 2020. Starting in 1998, the fourth plinth at Trafalgar has been used to showcase public art. It changes every two years. Among other projects, it has previously hosted a huge blue cockerel, a winged bull known as a lamassu and a skeletal horse.
Now the city of London has shortlisted six potential artworks to grace the plinth from August 2022. Entries include a massive metal rocket, plaster casts of the faces of 850 transgender women and a statue of Malawian rebel John Chilembwe.
Londoners are being encouraged to vote for their favourite artwork, but the final decision will be made by a panel of judges.
But some people are not keen on any of the options. In the last few months, there have been calls to install a permanent statue on the plinth. Campaigners have suggested that Captain Sir Tom Moore or Prince Philip should be immortalised in the world-famous square.
This is part of a long-running pattern. In recent years, there has been a growing sense that the people should be allowed to decide what statues appear in public.
Last year, protesters in the USA pulled down more than 100 statues of Confederate generals. And just last week, Oriel College, Oxford announced that it would not remove a controversial statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes despite years of protests against it by students. Nelson himself has come under fire for supporting slavery and colonialism.
Some would argue that statues are a kind of public historical record of social change. They say we can use them to remind us of the dark parts of our history, and to celebrate our progress since.
But protesters counter that we do not put up statues as reminders: they are there to memorialise people who we admire. In their view, removing statues is an important moral statement.
Some hope that by letting the people decide who they want to commemorate, we might make our monuments more diverse. In 2018, The Public Monuments and Sculpture Association estimated that only around 20% of monuments in the UK depict women, and only around 13% are dedicated to women. There are only about 15 statues of named Black people anywhere in the UK.
Should statues be elected?
Put on a pedestal
Yes, say some. The public deserves to feel that the statues they see around them every day represent them and belong to them. At a time when public art has become a controversial topic, the best way of bringing people together and ensuring that no one feels alienated in public spaces is to allow them to choose what is put on public display.
Not at all, say others. Public art should always challenge people, not pander to their existing views and prejudices. Giving the people the ultimate choice could prevent exciting but provocative art pieces from being displayed. Furthermore, the public is deeply divided over the question of whether or not controversial statues and a vote on them could inflame these tensions.
- If you were allowed to spend one hour performing on top of Trafalgar’s fourth plinth, what would you do there?
- What is public art for?
- In a small group, design your own artwork to be exhibited on the fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square.
- Divide the class into six. Each group should pick one of the shortlisted artworks and write a speech about why it should be picked. Then choose a speaker from each group to deliver your argument in a class debate.
Some People Say...
“I think the role of the artist is to take whatever it is they believe in and put it out there so the public can see it.”David Le Batard (1972 – ), Cuban-American artist
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Most people agree that the struggle between the people and the authorities over the space in Trafalgar Square is deep-rooted. In the 19th Century, protesters often gathered in Trafalgar Square, which is near Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street. So in 1841, the government decided to add two fountains to the square to make it harder for mass gatherings to form there. Despite this, protesters still very often occupy Trafalgar Square.
- What do we not know?
- People disagree over how art should relate to the public. Some think it should disrupt our lives and encourage us to see things differently. But others think public art should come from the people. For Antony Gormley’s fourth plinth exhibit in 2009, ordinary people were allowed to apply to spend one hour on the plinth doing anything they chose. One person encouraged people to text him their secrets, then read them out anonymously. Another used it to protest for the rights of disabled people.
- Naval victory
- In 1805, a British fleet led by Nelson destroyed a French fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar.
- Horatio Nelson
- A British naval hero who won several battles during the Napoleonic Wars. He was killed at Trafalgar by a sniper’s bullet.
- A protective deity worshipped in the ancient civilisation of Assyria, based largely in modern Iraq. It took the form of a winged bull with a human head.
- John Chilembwe
- A Malawian priest who led an unsuccessful uprising against British rule in 1915. He died in the attempt.
- Captain Sir Tom Moore
- A 100-year-old veteran who rose to fame at the start of the pandemic by walking around his garden to raise money for NHS charities. He died earlier this year.
- The Confederacy was the name taken by the breakaway country formed by pro-slavery states in the American Civil War.
- Oriel College
- One of Oxford University’s 39 colleges. It was founded in 1326.
- Cecil Rhodes
- A British businessman and politician who seized vast areas of land in southern Africa to create a colony, and later country, named after himself: Rhodesia.