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10 Jul, 2009

Plinth antics are no match for the National

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

All talk and no show, Antony Gormley’s pointless human relay is not the main art event in Trafalgar Square

The busker in front of the National Gallery has a marionette of John Lennon that he’s jiggling in time to Beatles hits. A small crowd has gathered. It is bigger, in fact, than the audience – virtually zero – that currently congregates around the person sitting on the plinth near the Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing.

I’m standing here because Nicholas Penny, Director of Britain’s national collection of European paintings, has lashed out in today’s Times about the state of Trafalgar Square. He says it’s a disgrace, a mess, a desecration. The pedestrianisation of the square has resulted not in a great new popular forum, he says, but “the trashing of a civic space”. He doesn’t exclude Antony Gormley’s fourth plinth installation from this criticism, with its rotating appearances by members of the public on top of the huge stone slab. “The conversion of the fourth plinth into a soap box or theatrical stage may be high-minded in intention”, he says, “but is symptomatic of this pervasive antagonism to architectural order.”

With views like these, surely Penny should be a blogger. The National Gallery has just relaunched its website; perhaps a no-holds-barred blog by the director would give it a real edge over competitors. But it’s hard to believe his timing was accidental. Nor does he conceal his antagonism to the Gormley love-in. This week, the National Gallery opened a beautiful and sensitive exhibition of French landscape art; it got a fraction of the media attention that has been lavished on Gormley’s live-art relay marathon. You can hardly blame Penny for starting to feel that championing high art is a losing battle when populism wins everywhere – even on his own front doorstep.

But I think he’s overreacting. Firstly because the crowds on Trafalgar Square, although oddly diffuse and distracted, making the pedestrianisation seem pointless, don’t do any harm. Walk through the doors of the National Gallery and you enter another, more thoughtful world – and plenty of people want to make that journey.

And there’s definitely no need for him to be rattled by Gormley. Media attention is a curious thing. It doesn’t matter how much chatter or twittering the Gormley installation generates. In Trafalgar Square itself, it is a non-event, all talk and no show. Did Gormley measure the plinth before he had the idea? It’s far too big for the work. How can it be a democratic living artwork when the people sitting up there are so far away from the crowds below? You can’t talk to them and they can’t talk to you. They just while away their hour up there, and the flurry of interest when the forklift raises a new participant to the heights soon dissipates. The second person to go up when I was watching started by taking pictures of the crowds below. Then she took out a banner that was too far away to read. Then she appeared to wonder what on earth to do next.

No doubt the plinth will go on generating publicity. But as art it just doesn’t work. I can’t see how it empowers the participants. It certainly doesn’t divert the beholders, few of whom seem interested. Penny is wrong, but because he’s underestimating people. They do go into the National Gallery – even if they have to squeeze past a John Lennon marionette on the way in.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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