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Fourth Plinth: A Taster

29 September 2013

The City has the FSA and the media has Ofcom… there really should be a regulatory body to cap the number of clichés constituting Artspeak. All this talk of ‘powerful images’, ‘exploration of themes’ and ‘probing the boundaries’ (much of it spewed out by this writer in lazier moments) feels a bit like a linguistic old boys’ network. It’s crass, pseudo-intellectual and irritating, and – worst of all – it tars the artists it’s applied to with its very naff brush. How does one ‘explore a theme’ anyway? By boat? However one navigates it, the discourse of Public Art is a bleak and scary wilderness.

David Shrigley

Really Good David Shrigley © James O Jenkins. Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

Anyway, thanks to London mayor Boris Johnson, this week gives us what is surely a new contender for a place in the pantheon of cultureballs: ‘The placing of challenging artworks amidst the historic surroundings of Trafalgar Square creates a delicious juxtaposition that gets people talking’, he announced in a press release unveiling the most recent proposals for the vacant fourth plinth. Yum.

To the point, though: whatever the juxtapositional savour of this most pompous of traffic intersections, its aesthetic future hangs in balance. Nelson needs new public commissions to stare at for the next couple of years, and to these ends six contenders have set up their pitches for 2015 and 2016 on cute miniature plinths in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields.

Our hopefuls are a starry bunch: Mark Leckey, David Shrigley, Ugo Rondinone, Liliane Lijn, Hans Haacke and Marcus Coates – the battle to create the most popular selfie backdrop in London is on.

(2013), Mark Leckey

Larger Squat Afar (2013), Mark Leckey © James O Jenkins. Courtesy the artist and Cabinet Gallery, London

Facetiousness aside, most – but certainly not all – of the proposals are pretty interesting, albeit in some instances completely unsuitable for the space. A case in point is Leckey’s Larger Squat Afar; described as a ‘chimera’. It’s a nightmare mash-up of every other statue in the square (one forgets how many there are), as loaded as it is funny; Charles I has been plucked off his horse and straddles Nelson’s outstretched arm as lions and cherubs melt into a post-modern puddle around it. This is Leckey’s irreverent disregard for pomp and tradition at its best, but it’s not right for the plinth: it’s too small, and despite its fascinating intricacy, doesn’t have the – wait for it – ‘bold impact’ required to assert control of its surroundings.

Really Good, Shrigley’s contribution, is anything but. A bronze fist with a grotesquely exaggerated erect thumb, it’s glib as hell and will probably get the commission. A much better use of bronze is Haacke’s Gift Horse, an equine skeleton that strums morbidly on the plinth’s history. Who knew it was supposed to be occupied by an equestrian statue of William of Orange?

The best proposals come from Lijn and Coates. The former’s idea, The Dance, is quite literally moving; two shiny conical structures – resembling either dunce caps or early Soviet spacecraft, depending on your upbringing – rotate and gyrate like very polite belly-dancers, and the impression (given off by the maquette, at least) is nothing if not alluring. The spacecraft simile is not, she says, accidental: she regularly works with materials and technology developed for NASA.

Marcus Coates

Unmade Monument Marcus Coates © James O Jenkins. Courtesy the artist, Kate MacGarry, London and Workplace, Gateshead

Coates’s Unmade Monument, meanwhile, is a concrete and fibreglass replica of a huge outcrop of rock in Yorkshire. Is it some sort of inquiry into the obsessive and completely ersatz ideal we have of nature – or is that just Artspeak at its worst? Whatever the case, it’s beautiful, deeply serious without an iota of pomposity and absolutely perfect as plinth material. Heads should roll if it doesn’t get chosen.

The public vote is open and a trip to the crypt is worthwhile for novelty alone. To make use of Boris’s gift to us, it’s our duty to make this juxtaposition delicious.

‘The Fourth Plinth Commission Shortlist’ is on display at The Crypt, St Martin-in-the-Fields, until 17 November 2013.