One, Other and the Same: the public as monument

Malcolm Miles
Antony Gormley’s participatory art project One & Other took place in the summer of 2009 on the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, London. A different person occupied the plinth each hour, day and night, for 100 days. The 2,400 occupants of the plinth – plinthers – were selected from more than 34,500 entries following a national invitation. 1,210 were men and 1,190 were women, aged from 16 to 84. Applicants could do anything within the law, and were not required to submit a plan. Gormley applied twice but was not selected. Gormley claimed that One & Other offered “a ‘composite picture’ of Britain” (Higgins, 1). Is such a picture viable in a period of global mass communications and migration, or in a city in which more than 300 languages are spoken every day? In the last year of the New Labour regime, did 2,400 individuals represent such a divided and complex society? The work’s effort at coherence was tested in the opening ceremony when, as the artist and the mayor of London made speeches to the press, “a white-haired middle aged fellow”, Stuart Holmes, jumped unannounced onto the plinth holding a poster: “Ban tobacco and actors smoking. One billion deaths this century!”(ibid.) He asked for a microphone but was told he should have brought his own. The mayor and artist carried on, punctuating their speeches with polite requests to Holmes to come down so that Rachel Wardell (aged 35), a housewife, could take her place as the first official plinther, holding up a poster for a children’s telephone help-line.

Which one, which other?

With an allowance for a breach of the rules, then, there were 2,401 plinthers. To ask if this matters is to ask whether the composite picture of the nation depicts a society that is defined according to the rules of representation, which extend those of the public monument as a device by which citizens are reminded of the values they are required to uphold (in effect a device for social control as well as an ordering of public space), or whether a more direct, unlicensed participation might carry a content of diversity more akin to the nation as it is, which may no longer be a nation at all.

A further question is whether Gormley, as the project manager who made the initial proposal, secured required permissions, and found funding for the work, retained its authorship, implying that the work remains situated in an aesthetic terrain; or allowed its determination by participants (which seems unlikely outside the licensed system of the ballot by which they were chosen, and by which they appeared in random order), or was himself the tool of the sponsor, Sky Arts, who screened images produced from a web-cam in the square (the only good images available), screening them in real time on monitors in the nearby National Portrait Gallery, supplying these to the press, but otherwise retaining control over their use. Or was One & Other reality television, its global audience able to contribute to as blog which carried only positive or at worst neutral messages?

Ties that Bound?

Gormley’s international status framed the project . Yet its aim was to state identity – a socio-political, economic construct which is instrumental in determining questions of belonging in a time of mass migration. If public monuments are designed to produce social ordering, was One & Other a reinvention of the monument to promote a picture of a nation whose troubles are no more than personal idiosyncrasies? Does art displace and diminish claims for space, voice and visibility, a right to the city? Perhaps it was appropriate to use a plinth to represent a picture of the nation to itself, much as statues present a nation’s publics with required hierarchies.

The site of One & Other – Trafalgar Square – is a monumental zone designed in the 1820s after clearance of dense habitations seen by the authorities as dens of crime – to purge the social body of its dirt. I wonder if the antics of the plinthers also purged the site of something more subversive: contested space masked by dressing up and having fun. Jonathan Jones, The Guardian’s art critic, wrote that One & Other was not “a celebration of the creativity of ordinary people [… but] a diminishing, isolating image of the individual’ when ‘people will try anything to get their voices heard”(Jones). To me, it seems the isolation of each plinther (in web-cam images against the grey façade of the National Gallery) rendered them like pictures in a white-cube space, de-contextualised and de-politicised, unable to form alliances or coalitions which might have suggested something of a nation asking itself what it is. Or, another comparison might be the Millennium Dome, with its bland exhibitions of technology, humour, faith, and other categories universally failing to construct a unity for a nation which no longer has a national narrative of any currency. But was the nation ever more than fiction?

Benedict Anderson writes of the emergence of the nation-state as counter to private interest. The nineteenth-century liberal state sought to improve the lot of the deserving poor, both for philanthropic reasons and to prevent insurrection. Anderson reads this a shift to the state as community of common cause, bound by common ties: “regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail […] a deep, horizontal comradeship” (7). The fantasy was enforced in a proliferation of public monuments and memorials: personal loss was subsumed in national mourning, as were personal stories in the national narrative. The greater the uncertainty, the more monuments tended to adopt old and grandiose architectural styles. Materials such as bronze and stone implied a timeless inevitability it would be futile to oppose. As Jon Bird writes, “Legitimacy became the crucial operation for the hegemonic structuring of civil society, and the public domain the site for the exchange of symbolic values” (30).

Liberalism also used art, as in the opening of the Tate Gallery in 1897, where the poor could be educated in taste and manners by mixing with the educated middle class. Brandon Taylor observes “an obsession with deportment and the pleasures to be gained from regularity and order” (21) in Tate’s press in the 1890s. To admit the lower classes, he adds, stated a fantasy of “a mixed audience at ease with itself, variegated and occupied”(23). Was One & Other: a picture of a nation at ease with itself, desperately denying the pressures driving it apart? Was it an oblique re-run of Matthew Arnold’s argument that, when a nation’s ties (such as common faith) unwind, only culture has the agency to bind? For Arnold, art’s value was universal; faced with insurrection, the state turned to culture. Arnold wrote, “the whole scope of the essay is to recommend culture as the great help out of our present difficulties” (viii). As such, culture required the adherence of its producers to “Establishments” (ibid.) (middle-class, professional society). Arnold wrote of “the love of our neighbour, […] the desire for removing human error, clearing human confusion, and diminishing human misery […]” (5-6). Gormley seems to share this liberal sentiment when he recalls driving through the urban periphery with its arid malls and housing blocks, paralysed by fear that the culture which requires us to “produce more, be seen more” is unsustainable; arguing that “It is through art that we communicate what it feels like to be alive.” But whose culture?

In “Cosmopolitan Urbanism: a love song to our mongrel cities”, Leonie Sandercock writes, “We all grow up in a culturally structured world, are deeply shaped by it, and necessarily view the world from within a specific culture.”(47) She adds, “some form of cultural identity and belonging seems unavoidable” and that cultures, in the sense of beliefs and practices, can be critically revised from within (ibid). Similarly, from theatre studies, Catherine Belsey argues that culture is the structure in which meanings are made socially. She emphasises the function of language in consciousness, and that language, like any structure, changes. Hence, “we can choose to intervene with a view to altering the meanings – which is to say the norms and values – our culture takes for granted (5)” But how?

Works cited:
Anderson, B. Imagined Communities. London, Verso, 1991. Print.

Arnold, M. Culture and Anarchy. London: Smith, Elder & Co, [popular edition] 1889. Print.

Belsey, C. Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.

Bird, J. “The Spectacle of Memory”. In Michael Sandle [exhibition catalogue]. London: Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1988. Print.

Gormley, A. “Art’s lost subject”. The Guardian, 13 February, 2010. Accessed on-line at 12 April, 2010. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2010/feb13>.

Higgins, C. “Oyez! Oyez! the plinth has come: Gormley begins his picture of Britain”. The Guardian. 7 July, 2009. Print.
Jones, J. “The forth plinth: it was just Big Brother all over again”. The Guardian, 9 October, 2009. Accessed on-line 12 April 2010. <www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2009/oct2009>.

Sandercock, L. “Cosmopolitan Urbanism: a love song to our mongrel cities”. In Cosmopolitan Urbanism. Binnie, J., Holloway, J., Millington, S. & Young, C. (eds). London: Routledge, 2006. Print.
Taylor, B. “From Penitentiary to Temple of Art: early metaphors of improvement at the Millbank Tate”. In Art Apart: Art institutions and Ideology across England and North America. Pointon, M. (ed.). Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994. Print.

 

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