Trafalgar Square puts modern art on a pedestal

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The suggestions ranged from a 24ft pigeon to David Beckham via Red Rum and the Queen Mother. But in the end the committee deciding on the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square thought it should be none of these.

Instead, it said yesterday, it will be occupied by a changing display of contemporary art, which means it may well turn out to be all of the above.

Sir John Mortimer, who chaired the panel, said the site, empty for 150 years, should be an international showcase for artworks of the period rather than a retrospective of Britain's history. "It offers a ... celebration of our artistic revival and the vitality and vivacity of this moment as opposed to the great moments of the past," he said.

A statue to commemorate a person was perhaps the quickest route to oblivion, he added. "After all, who can name the other figures in Trafalgar Square? There are two Indian generals who have sunk into total obscurity and George IV, who is remembered for a rather scandalous divorce.

"We want to commemorate our period. The Victorian and Edwardian statues all commemorated their period but the voice of contemporary art is not heard very much in the public statues of London."

The decision to have a rotating exhibition continues the present arrangement. The current sculpture, Regardless of History, by Bill Woodrow, will be replaced by in October by an inverted cast of the plinth in resin by the Turner-prize winning artist Rachel Whiteread.

The first occupant of the plinth was a figure of Christ by Mark Wallinger, which has been exhibited abroad and will end up by Milan cathedral.

The plinth seemed destined for obscurity until Prue Leith, after being appointed to the Royal Society of Arts, decided to do something about it and the idea of the rotating exhibition was born.

Sir John later took over the panel to decide on a permanent exhibit and a consultation was launched. Proposals included a stiff upper lip, Emily Pankhurst, Helen Mirren and Diana, Princess of Wales. Sir John favoured a statue of Charles Dickens until it was discovered he had specified in his will that there were to be no statues of him.

There was a strong campaign for a memorial to mark the role of women during the Second World War but it was felt that Trafalgar Square was the wrong place. "We believe there should be such a tribute. But Trafalgar Square - a crowed and noisy tourist destination - is not the place for it. Such a memorial should be in a park or open space where it could be more readily appreciated and enjoyed," Sir John said yesterday.

Although the artists commissioned to produce work for the fourth plinth will be given freedom to do what they want, Sir John said there could be times when a particular subject would be suggested.

The year 2007 marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade by Britain and it is probable a statue to mark that will be erected. "We believe this will be the most fitting scene for the sculpture of that year, an idea put to us most eloquently by the late Bernie Grant MP and Baroness Ros Howells," Sir John said. A committee will be set up to decide on the sculptures, the first of which is to be in place by spring.

Trafalgar Square was laid out in 1841 by the architect Charles Barry, who suggested groups of sculptures. Three years later the statue of George IV went up. The fourth plinth was supposed to commemorate William IV, but he left no money in his will to pay for it and it remained empty until last year.