x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Public on a pedestal

With a new work for Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth, Antony Gormley aims to make living art out of ordinary people.

The three permanent statures at Trafalgar Square from left to right: King George IV, Major General Sir Henry Havelock and Charles James Napier.
The three permanent statures at Trafalgar Square from left to right: King George IV, Major General Sir Henry Havelock and Charles James Napier.

For more than 150 years, the plinths that lie on the four corners of London's Trafalgar Square have been reserved for monarchs and generals. With a name born out of military conquest, the square pays homage to the historic figures that have helped shape the nation. Monuments commemorating the dead bear down on passers-by: austere, grand, elevated. This summer, however, the male-dominated arena will host a surprising new addition. Antony Gormley's One & Other project will challenge perceptions of public art by quite literally investing the square with new life. "Ordinary" UK citizens are being called upon to take part in a project that will see a different person take to the fourth plinth every hour, 24 hours a day for 100 days, creating a living, breathing artwork that aims to provide a portrait of 21st-century Britain.

Supported by the UK arts group Artichoke, best known for bringing The Sultan's Elephant to London in 2006 and La Machine to Liverpool last year; the television channel Sky Arts, which has commissioned a groundbreaking website featuring real-time footage at any hour of the day or night; the National Portrait Gallery, which will host a live link into the Gallery from the plinth and the Mayor of London, One & Other will make art accessible to a whole new audience.

The attraction is immediate: through television and photography the everyday person is elevated - both literally and metaphorically - to a new level of renown. Participants will be in esteemed company: the other three plinths hold statues of George IV and the generals Henry Havelock and Sir Charles James Napier. As one of central London's most famous landmarks, Trafalgar Square will guarantee both national and international coverage.

The growing popularity of the project has translated into fierce competition for a place on the plinth. Applications opened via the project's website last month and already over 11,000 members of the public have registered to win one of the 2,400 places. What participants do on the plinth is up to them and, as long as it is legal, there is no limit to the range of options. Singers, political protesters, burlesque dancers, readers and marketing strategists are all welcome.

Anyone over the age of 16 can apply and participants will be chosen at random, with a computer being used to ensure an even number of males and females as well as a fair regional spread. Once picked, volunteers will be given a designated one-hour slot and lifted into position on the plinth by a mobile platform, which will make the plinth wheelchair and disabled-accessible. When the project ends in October this year, a permanent home will be sought for an entire archive of its participants, meaning that participants will be, in some way, immortalised in art.

"The idea is very simple," Gormley explained in February, when the project launched. "Through putting a person onto the plinth, the body becomes a metaphor, a symbol. In the context of Trafalgar Square with historical statues, this elevation of everyday life to the position formerly occupied by monumental art allows us to reflect on the diversity, vulnerability and particularity of the individual in contemporary society. It's about people coming together to do something extraordinary and unpredictable. It could be tragic but it could also be funny."

Gormley's initiative marks the next stage in the development of the fourth plinth, which remained empty from 1841 to 1999 until the Royal Society of Arts launched a project to fill it. Since then, it has been used as a rotational site for new public art. Contemporary artists are given the opportunity to submit ideas to a designated board and commissioned works are housed on the plinth for up to two years. Antony Gormley's project will be followed by Nelson's Ship in a Bottle by the artist Yinka Shonibare and past installations have included Mark Wallinger's Ecce Homo (1999) and Marc Quinn's sculpture of the pregnant artist Alison Lapper (2005). Quinn's choice of Lapper as a subject was an interesting one, not least because she was born with a severe disorder that has left her with no arms and truncated legs. By exhibiting the sculpture in such a public space, Quinn actively challenged perceptions of disability and demonstrated the scope and power of public art.

One & Other will similarly enable participants and spectators to engage with art in a new way. "Gormley's idea is about repositioning public sculpture and monument as a truly public phenomenon," says Munira Mirza, the director of cultural policy for the mayor of London. "With a 24-hour time limit for each participant, it is a project that captures transience and explores the idea of a quick turnaround. The art is moving and energetic. People come and go; only the plinth remains solid and unmovable. The plinth is a stage; a platform that enables ordinary people to express themselves."

"Public art is a unique type of art," Mirza continues. "It's very different to gallery art because it is something that we pass by every day and it inevitably creates a lot of discussion in a way that gallery art does not. It can be provocative, but it can also be beautiful. It can be something that dignifies space and gives people something to feel positive about, or it can be shocking and controversial and make people feel uncomfortable. The value of having it in the public sphere is that it incites popular debate and allows people to feel that they have some ownership over it."

There are, of course, potential pitfalls to a project of this scale and type. The promise of television airtime and an audience of thousands will inevitably attract exhibitionists and those desperately seeking their five minutes (or one hour) of fame. While striving for public recognition is in itself not harmful, it does beg the question of what art must transform into in order to become truly popular. Increasingly, artists and galleries are resorting to "gimmick art" - and particularly that which plays with notions of spectator and spectacle - to feed a desire for novelty and difference.

Reality television has revolutionised the way in which we see our relationship to the outside world, so that suddenly we can all be famous; ours are the stories that need to be told and the dramas that need to be staged. A culture based on self-promotion and aggrandisement has meant that for many, interest in a concept is reliant on some form of personal involvement in that concept. One & Other is well-conceived for a climate of self-conscious narcissism. In platforming over 2,000 potential attention-seekers, is Gormley really creating a valuable and plinth-worthy piece of art and should icons of national importance be relegated in favour of such participants?

"I think that there is a tendency to underestimate the public," argues Mirza. "Sometimes tricks and gimmicks are incredibly interesting and they can provoke a totally different response. The public has reacted strongly to the idea of this project and that suggests that they are intrigued by the concept." "I was initially worried about how my participation in the project would be perceived among my friends", admits plinth-hopeful Dominic Howells. "I'm not a showy person, but I am interested in art and its production. I decided that if selected, I would like to sleep on the plinth. Sleep is perhaps the only way in which we can naturally - and yet quite deliberately - eliminate our consciousness of ourselves. Of course, people will still observe me as I sleep, but it will be an observation in which I am quite unable to participate. I'd rather be a sleeping object of art than a gawking spectator," he said.

The threat of political violence is also a concern. Trafalgar Square is already used as a site of political demonstration and in the current climate of economic meltdown and perceived inequality, organisers believe it is likely that the politically dissatisfied and disaffected will feature heavily. While the vocalisation of political disunity will be tolerated, the expression of prejudice or attempts at violence will not. Officers will be standing by to intervene in case the law is breached.

"Safety will be a key feature of the operation," says Mirza. "The plinth will be surrounded by netting and medical professionals will be on hand. We want people to enjoy the experience of watching and participating and we hope that people will look forward to forthcoming commissions, in the same way that they may watch out for upcoming exhibitions at a local gallery. Artists are generating excitement for both public art and the use of a landmark site and proving that public art can be accessible, affordable and fun."