Hello, Mum! Village fete mentality on Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth
Antony Gormley's art project only goes to show what a feeble, unimaginative nation we are, argues Tim Lott
Sunday 12 July 2009
If there has been, or ever will be, a more dispiriting art project than Antony Gormley's One & Other on the fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square, I cannot imagine what it might be. And that's particularly depressing because I have a lot more imagination than most of the people on it. Which isn't saying much: so does my half-senile cat.
The empty plinth at least contained some sense of latency. Now that it has been handed over to "the people" it can be plainly seen what a dull, unimaginative, lazy bunch we truly are. One & Other is, in its way, art, although I haven't yet seen a single plinther make anything remotely approaching an artistic statement. It's art, because, as Gormley intended, it holds a mirror up to society. And what is reflected is a mild, dull, indifferent world of lazy, occasionally well-meaning, narcissists.
This view is at variance with the official view propounded through the Sky website: "From the quiet dignity of the first plinthian, Rachel, through the iconic imagery of Jill and her green balloons, through t'ai chi, marathon running, glorious storytelling, fantastic attempts at construction with trees, bread and cards – the journey through the creation of this art has been as diverse as we are and broader than the artist's imagination."
Well, up to a point, Lord Blogger. I have so far watched dozens of the plinthers on the live internet stream. It is catastrophically boring, and it isn't improved by going there to see it live. I went there on Friday in person. One woman held a sign advertising a library in Northern Ireland. Another drank a bottle of champagne. One punter shouted the most apt comment yet: "Why don't you do something?"
Just in case you wonder what you've been missing, here are some of the "living artworks" so far. A woman holding a poster in favour of peace. A man doing t'ai chi. A woman holding a heart balloon. Someone just standing there. Someone just standing there dressed up in yellow waders. Three people who separately had the innovative idea of photographing the crowd. One man standing advertising a pub chain. A man standing in a kilt. A woman reading a book. Another woman reading a book. Another just sitting in a chair doing nothing.
One person has actually made an attempt at a joke and dressed as Lord Lucan, with a sign reading: "What Are You Lucan At?" Well, at least he tried. Others, thinking of only the most literal way to "communicate", took a pen and paper and wrote signs, which usually amounted to little more than "hello" or something anodyne for the benefit of friends, family or the charity they were pushing. They gabble on their mobile phones, they stare witlessly into the middle distance.
Am I being unkind to all these ordinary, decent people – a bitchy little Simon Cowell with a PC instead of a microphone? Perhaps, but then the first thing to learn about an artwork is that when it's for public display it opens you up to criticism. That's why art takes courage. It's about a dialogue. And this is my contribution to the dialogue.
Virtually nobody has made any kind of effort or put any kind of thought into what is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They get up, most of them, in their ordinary, sloppy clothes, looking bemused or bored. Often they ask the time, even though there is a bloody great clock in front of them. They all seem to be carrying identical little backpacks and virtually no props. No one below them pays them much attention.
As I write I am listening to the live feed on the Sky channel. The man on there who thinks the plinth is "cool, great, fantastic" has done nothing other than talk on his mobile phone to friends. He just said "Hello, Mum" to his Mum.
Hello, Mum. And there, in a nutshell, you have what is at the heart of the One & Other art project as it is lived – a village fete mentality, a chance to show off or have a giggle, but no attempt whatsoever to make a creative gesture.
It's not as if it's exactly difficult to think of something interesting. Off the top of my head, you could, let me see, graffiti the plinth. Sit up on a chair in front of a TV and get slowly and blindingly drunk. Take 10 ants on the plinth and execute one every five minutes. Yodel. Spread yourself with bird food and get covered in pigeons. Poison the pigeons (like teams from the council do). Cut your hair off. Paint yourself blue. Surround yourself with curtains so that you can't be seen and do something noisy so that everyone wonders what you are up to.
Not amazing ideas, perhaps, but they only took me about 60 seconds to come up with, and any one of them would have been more interesting than what is appearing.
Both participants and observers are bored. No effort required. How post-modern is that? It's like Britain's Got Talent without the talent. Britain's Got No Talent.
As for the charitable and political statements, no one should confuse art with politics or philanthropy.
To make a moral statement such as "I support world peace" is the opposite of art. It is the stating of the obvious and of what society accepts as being a conventionally correct view. Art, if anything at all, is about helping us to look at the world slightly differently.
I'm not claiming that art has to be "interesting" any more than it has to be beautiful. I have no more right than anyone else to say what art is. But I would suggest what I think it might, at a minimum, involve: that there would be an idea behind the art, however banal, and a sincere attempt being made to express it, however unsuccessfully.
Perhaps One & Other does achieve this as an overall project, but in the most monotonous way imaginable and producing a very discouraging truth: that people, in the main, simply aren't in any sense artistic, or even mildly imaginative. It is the strongest possible recommendation against democracy in art.
It is doubtless true that everybody has "something to say". One & Other makes it plain that what they have to say, however, is almost entirely uninteresting – indeed, that they can barely be bothered to say it.
Perhaps the most valuable thing about the whole project is that it advertises how much we actually do need artists, and what a special breed they are. Instead of people muttering "my five-year-old child could do that" when faced with a modern art project, they will now recognise that not only will their child be unable to do it, they themselves will not be able to do it either.
Or perhaps it's just a question of observing that only artists can be arsed to make any sort of creative effort in the first place. I was genuinely excited when the Gormley project won the fourth space. Now I am commensurately disappointed. Maybe I'm missing the point of the whole thing. It wouldn't be the first time.
I can only conclude with two comments reflecting the sheer excitement of the whole project. Two bloggers, one from Sky Arts and the other from the website of a newspaper.
The latter said: "Wow, what a tedious project. I'd have thought the last thing you'd want to see in an overcrowded city is Yet Another Person, standing on a bit of concrete."
Right on. And, even better still, as the Sky blogger put it: "The fourth plinth, man. It's Big Brother for Guardian readers".
Tim Lott's The Scent of Dried Roses will be published by Penguin Modern Classics on 30 July
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