thu 23/11/2017

Fourth Plinth: How London Created the Smallest Sculpture Park in the World | reviews, news & interviews

Fourth Plinth: How London Created the Smallest Sculpture Park in the World

Fourth Plinth: How London Created the Smallest Sculpture Park in the World

Celebrating Trafalgar Square's infamous empty plinth, and its role in changing attitudes to contemporary art

Installation: Elmgreen and Dragset's 'Powerless Structures, Fig. 101' was unveiled in 2012Photo Gautier Deblonde

I have always felt very lucky to have been working as an artist in London during the period when it transformed into the capital of the art world. It has been a beautiful, fascinating and profitable ride. When I started art school in 1978, contemporary art in Britain seemed like a cottage industry situated in some little backwater seldom visited by the public or the media. Art history happened elsewhere – in Paris, Vienna or New York. Twenty years later, London was cool once again, and its exploding art scene was a large part of that. This was the heyday of the Young British Artists, Charles Saatchi and the Turner Prize. Tate Modern would soon open to five million visitors a year. I couldn’t believe it: contemporary art was popular! I thought that it was just a phase, that the Great British public would soon tire of art. But they didn’t: they kept on coming and seemed to love it – and they still do.

For me, the watershed moment came in 2009. The experience that finally convinced me that art was no longer an obscure cult was listening to a storyline in Radio 4’s middle-England soap opera The Archers. The programme has been running for more than 60 years and is no hotbed of the avant-garde. So when Lynda Snell, the self- appointed cultural ambassador for Ambridge, campaigned to get someone from the fictional village onto the Fourth Plinth during Antony Gormley’s One and Other project, I sensed the game was won… or lost. I thought that if Lynda was a fan of a piece of participatory performance art, then no corner of the national psyche had been left untouched by the legacy of Marcel Duchamp.

It is fitting that my moment of realisation was triggered by the Fourth Plinth, for it has acted as the pivot for many debates about contemporary life and art since its inception in 1999. The art works serve as a provocation to the grand establishment figures arrayed around our most public of squares. The works have stood above the roar of the traffic, sometimes asking difficult questions, sometimes raising a smile, often doing both. Trafalgar Square is no neutral white cube; and all of the artists have taken up the challenge of intervening in this most political of spaces. But today are the works standing there as hecklers to the powers-that-be or are they yet more officials speaking to the crowd? The Fourth Plinth is a reminder to the art world that it has been allowed in. Contemporary art is no longer a little-understood craze in Britain. It is now one of the "creative industries", a gaudy feather in the cap of UK plc, a huge tourist draw and regenerator of run-down provincial towns. It has come of age. Maybe it feels it deserves the Fourth Plinth now. Maybe it is comfortable up there. Good. Long may art reign over us!

if Lynda Snell was a fan of a piece of participatory performance art, then no corner of the national psyche had been left untouched by the legacy of Marcel Duchamp

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