Art in the Right Place?

This piece was written by Roh and published in the journal Left Curve Number 29, pages 120-121, 2005

Art in the Right Place?

Rosie Wright

‘The conquest of the earth, which mostly means taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea – something you can set up and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to’

– Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness 1973:10

At fifteen feet high, anti-contagious and civilizing in pure white classical marble, pregnant British woman Alison Lapper, who has no arms and shortened legs due to a congenital disorder called phocomelia, will sit in pristine wholeness on the fourth plinth in the north-west corner of Trafalgar Square in London, from spring 2005 until the summer of 2006. Surrounded by commanding military heroes, excluding a replica of British football hero David Beckham and a stone cow, the fourth plinth has remained empty since 1841 when it was built by the architect of Trafalgar Square, Sir Charles Barry. Originally meant to display an equestrian statue but left empty due to insufficient funds, this year London Mayor Ken Livingston assigned ‘The Fourth Plinth Project’ as part of his ‘Culture Strategy’ for London. In March, a panel of specialist advisors recommended there be one temporary work of art that would be on the plinth for fifteen months; the public could “vote” but these would not be classified as votes and only the specialists could make the final choices. Chosen from a group of six leading national and international contemporary artists, which included Chris Burden, Sokari Douglas Camp, Stefan Gec and Sarah Lucas, British artist Marc Quinn’s sculpture “Alison Lapper Pregnant” was chosen by the Fourth Plinth Commissionary group in March 2004, to be replaced by Thomas Schütte’s pro-pigeon “Hotel for the Birds” in 2006.

Despite the Chair of the London regional council of Arts Council England, Lady Hollik, advocating that ‘London is not a museum piece…the historic and the contemporary sit side by side, distinct in their diversity yet combining to produce a fresh landscape’ it appears that it is easy to get sentimental where, within the language that celebrates difference, stereotypes can re-blossom and imitation allows us to be closed to learning. With the placing of Lapper in a public city space whose dominant historical text is that of heroism, some of us are slipping into a different kind of present response than one of “Travulgar Square” British tabloid press disgust at bad taste, political-correctness-gone-mad shock art. Instead we slide into another historically established order: one of sentimentality and high-flying well-brought-up morality. Facing the heroic Lord Nelson in wholeness and beauty, Lapper is our ultimate modern conquer – ‘I pay taxes, I am a single mother…’ – whose sculpture acts, according to Lapper, as a ‘tribute to femininity, disability and motherhood.’ She is a steadfastly self–affirmed, a self-sufficient individual and, to Quinn, represents the contemporary heroine. He says of his series of limbless sculptures:

‘Even if they refer to the sculpture of the past, they seem to me to be about the future, which is about difference and diversity. They’re celebrations of difference and of the triumph of the human spirit. Hero’s are people who conquer themselves and go on to lead full lives.’

Reverenced and idealized, Lapper’s life career becomes the thread of the story in a work of fiction. She exists within the same museum narrative of revenge, punishment, reward and retribution that we use to understand Lord Nelson’s Imperialist History and the colonization of the contagious savage other who is overcome by the civilizing hero; celebration and acceptance only exists for difference that can become triumph by way of such a heroic individual. Quinn winning this public art competition has, it seems, helped Lapper to become the embodiment of a hegemonic Imperial British history; of a way of thinking that fetishises the story of the eye – Nelson, in the battle of Copenhagen, knowing that there was no time to flee, put his blind eye to his telescope and saying, ‘I don’t see the signal’, and so continued to fight and crushed the Danish fleet – that signifies bravery and a patriotic love of country that excludes different perspectives and voices beyond the heroic.

In commenting on Bataille’s Story of the Eye (1928), Roland Barthes writes:

‘its story is that of migration, the cycle of the avatars it passes through, far removed from its original being, down the path of a particular imagination that distorts but never drops it.’ (2001:119)

The eye for Barthes acts as an endless metaphor, a chain without a beginning that has no hierarchy of meaning. Open and out of reach of interpretation, there is no place for a secret reference behind the signifier. Douglas Camp’s sculpture No-o-war-r No-o-war-r aims to ‘depict ordinary people as heroes’; as complex and conflicted beings, full of doubt, hesitation, anger and conviction, Douglas Camp describes them as akin to Rodin’s sculpture of all six of The Burghers of Calais. The equal status of her protesters acknowledges the context of Trafalgar Square as a historical place of continuing protest and the assertion of rights by ordinary people. By refusing to stamp identities and form distinctions in diversity, her sculpture does not contribute to the process of creating totalizing modern molds. The Fourth Plinth Project advisors turned a blind eye to the millions who demonstrated in Trafalgar Square against the war in Iraq in 2003 and who have demonstrated there throughout its history, crushing alternative perspectives and upholding the Victory of neo-colonial thought. Simultaneously, the myopic board co-ordinate their own self-affirmation through a sense of social duty and have thus prevented Londoners the right to explore public spaces such as Trafalgar Square and learn an unexpected education.

In a world that is maintained by inequality, historic love is belief in an idea of science, knowledge and ethics to which you can sacrifice yourself. Within the archive of such a love, the perception of disease at the heart of modern living must be controlled and purified in order to free us from imagined threat and continuous conflict. The Fourth Plinth Project, goes on Lady Hollik, ‘at its heart aims to encourage Londoners to engage with the arts and with their environment in new ways.’ In many ways I would have to disagree. Marc Quinn’s sculpture offers only one history, one perspective, one hero. Instead of ‘producing fresh landscapes’, this sculpture acts to maintain the stench of diseased old ones.


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