20 Jul, 2009

Why I took my place on the plinth

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Some claim Antony Gormley’s project is not art. I’ve been up there and I think they are wrong

I went up after a tall, grey-haired woman, named Gill, in a scary mask. She, in her turn, had followed a punk Britannia, wrapped in a sheet and brandishing a Union flag in the gusty breeze. And down there, waiting inside a cabin stationed in Trafalgar Square, was an intense young woman in a black evening dress who would take my place when my hour was up. It was Tuesday 14 July and we were halfway through what the twitterers who monitor activities on the four plinth were to dub “ladies’ afternoon”.

Antony Gormley’s One & Other is barely a sixth of the way through its 100-day run and yet it has intrigued and infuriated the public in equal measure. “What lazy, cheap art!” the guardians of culture have cried. “How can Gormley claim this is anything but a showcase for pointless exhibitionism?” When I told one writer I had won a place on the plinth in the online lottery, she said: “Maybe it is fun for those doing it, but what about those who have to watch?”

For me, if there is any proof that Gormley’s idea was worth pursuing it is the fact that, even today, some pundits have been rubbed up the wrong way by it. Don’t they understand that not all art has to be about the greatness of the artist, or in this case, even of those who want to get involved? Sometimes the point of art is to step outside – or above – daily life. To look differently at things.

In the quaint, village fete atmosphere of the project’s temporary HQ next to Nelson’s Column, I had been welcomed by a bevy of helpers in red sweatshirts, each keen to put an endless chain of nervy volunteers at ease. I was given a glass of water and a clipboard of forms to fill in to prove my identity and confirm my image could be used. Would I also please promise not to break the law? Also, was I, by the way, carrying weapons? And, if I did feel faint, would I please fall towards the terrace side of the square, where the drop was less deadly? Fair enough, I would try.

I was calm and collected, I thought, despite the strange situation, until I noticed I had begun to write down my childhood address on one of the forms. (Mummy, take me home.) Then, rather in the manner of TV’s Mr Benn, I went through a small door into a changing room, only to emerge moments later in fancy dress.

And some dress it was. My allotted slot had fallen on Bastille Day, so I took up my place on the plinth in the regal guise of Marie Antoinette and handed out cakes. I realise the ill-fated French queen may never, in fact, have made the callous remark: “Let them eat cake!” but it was a good enough excuse at teatime. My other ruse was to display a series of revolutionary slogans, culled from different periods of unrest down the ages. I had about 20 sheets that said things such as: “Boldness, and again boldness, always boldness”, a favourite saying of French revolutionary Danton. I also had a salty quote from Germaine Greer, a good Nancy Mitford epigram and a remark or two from Chairman Mao and Che Guevara to excite the mob.

Decked out in a wig, feathered hat, sash and padded hips, I was very much prey to the winds up there. I nearly lost my hat, but then thank God I wasn’t David Rosenberg. He was up there on Thursday night cycling away in the thunder and lightning. “It was horrendous,” he told me. “It just poured and poured. People were shouting at me to come down before I was electrocuted.” All the same, he was glad he had done it.

Things on the plinth have gone smoothly so far and yet One & Other is, above almost everything else, an incredibly ambitious logistical feat. To keep a steady flow of people up there, hour by hour, day and night, staff are on the phone all the time. When someone fails to show up, they switch to a list of workers in the Whitehall area who have agreed to stand in. In the first week, they called up one named Sandy, who turned out to be the director of the National Portrait Gallery. He gamely agreed to an evening slot and spent it sketching the scene.

Critics are right that Gormley has ceded artistic control to his participants. They are right, too, to say some plinthers do little with their hour. But even these people are giving a performance of sorts. As it goes on, the project will inevitably develop. Mike Figgis, the film director making a documentary about it, has noted that although the biggest audience is actually watching online, those on the plinth find it hard not to focus on the crowd they can see in the square. Perhaps this will change as plinthers wise up to the cameras trained on them.

Whatever happens, I have had four times more than my allotted 15 minutes of fame and escaped, unlike the real Marie Antoinette, with my head intact. I tend to think that while life’s lows come along unaided, you have to make your own highs. I just won’t be going up quite that high again.

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