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PRINT November 1999

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Trafalgar Square

VISITORS TO LONDON are accustomed to the stately sculptures that occupy Trafalgar Square: figures of kings, military heroes, imperial lions. But a statue of a scantily clad Christ that resembles a cross between a Holocaust survivor and The Jungle Book’s Mowgli? This summer, Mark Wallinger’s haunting figure took its place among the staid, stony personages congregating at the touristic heart of London. Come January, though, it will disappear again. Whereas the other statues in the square are permanent, after only six months Wallinger’s work will be replaced by another new commission, which in turn will be replaced next autumn by a third. In true Anglo-Saxon style, even monuments have entered the era of the short, fixed-term contract.

The commissions, by Wallinger, Rachel Whiteread, and Bill Woodrow, are taking their turn occupying the long-empty plinth in Trafalgar Square. The Victorian architect of the square, Charles Barry, intended to erect equestrian statues to the most recently deceased British kings, George IV and William IV, on a matching pair of large plinths at the north end, near the National Gallery. King George’s monument was successfully completed, but because William neglected to set aside money for a memorial in his will, the second plinth remained bare.

The Royal Society of Arts—a charitable organization dedicated to the “encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce”—decided that, after almost 160 years, it was high time to do something about it. The three commissions, all given to British sculptors, are intended to stimulate debate about the nature of public art today and to influence decisions about the plinth’s future use.

Wallinger’s Ecce Homo is a life-size standing figure of Christ, cast in white marble resin. Hands tied behind his back, the figure wears nothing but a loincloth. His head is clean-shaven and surmounted by a gold crown/halo of barbed wire. For Wallinger, the sculpture “alludes to the recent historical past and its sad record of religious and racial intolerance.” Its diminutive scale in relation to the plinth, and the figure’s withdrawn body language, contrast with the monumentality of the square’s permanent fixtures.

Sculptures by Whiteread and Woodrow will be exhibited next year. Whiteread’s solution is breathtakingly simple—an inverted cast of the twenty-four-foot-tall plinth in water-clear resin that will reflect and refract the surroundings. She explains: “After spending time in Trafalgar Square observing the people, traffic, pigeons, architecture, sky and fountains, I became acutely aware of the general chaos of Central London life. I decided that the most appropriate sculpture for the plinth would be to make a ‘pause’: a quiet moment for the ‘space.’” That said, the sculpture won’t be all that solemn. It will bear more than a passing resemblance to a giant boiled sweet and, as such, will be a worthy heir to the proposals for “giant monuments” first made by Claes Oldenburg during his stay in London in the ’60s.

Woodrow’s contribution is the most formally complex. Regardless of History will be a bronze assemblage consisting of a giant head lying on its side on the plinth and pinned down by a large book. These two elements will be held in place by the massive root system of a tree that has taken seed and grown on top of them. Woodrow says his work, which recalls Renaissance and baroque emblems, “makes reference to the never-ending cyclical relationship between civilizations, knowledge, and the forces of nature.”

In the wake of the rotating plan, suggestions for a permanent statue for the plinth have been coming in thick and fast. The London Evening Standard invited its readers to send in ideas, which have ranged from somber proposals honoring the likes of Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela to cheeky monuments to Princess Diana—“reclining on a chaise longue, à la Madame Recamier”—and even an American suggestion for a monument to Moby Dick entitled “The Plinth of Whales.” The obvious solution is to carry on with the rolling program until the end of time.

James Hall is a writer based in London.