A Match Made in Heaven: Contemporary Art and the Fourth Plinth

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Nothing has got people talking about art quite like the infamous Fourth Plinth. Since 1999, Trafalgar Square’s once lonely column has found its perfect partner in bold and provocative contemporary art, displayed before pigeons, protesters and passers-by under the watchful eye of Lord Nelson. I can remember taxi rides enlivened by drivers amazed by an enormous ship in a bottle and friends arguing the artistic merits of the giant blue cockerel over dinner.

It’s safe to say we’ve all had personal experience of the plinth; its hits, and even its misses, have captured our imagination. Now, only minutes away from the site at trendy arts institution the ICA, a new exhibition celebrates this remarkable art project. Stepping in from a cold wintery night to attend the official unveiling, I found myself captivated by its magic once more.

Fourth Plinth: Contemporary Monument runs from the 5 December 2012 - 20 January 2013 at the ICA

Fourth Plinth: Contemporary Monument runs from the 5th December 2012 to 20th January 2013 at the ICA

For a moment, entering the exhibition room in the ICA feels like walking into DeBeers; within the small, dark interior, beautiful objects stand out under strong spotlights, gleaming with pride like diamonds. The special atmosphere is just right, lending these miniature models the aura of monumentality that sheer size would otherwise have conveyed. In the centre of the room a group of press clippings – reviews ranging from the good to the bad and the truly ugly -bring an incredible story to life. Don’t leave without reading about the tireless work of inspiring businesswoman and plinth cupid Prue Leith who made it her personal mission to fill this poor empty spot.

It might be a trip down memory lane, but the reason why I highly recommend this exhibition goes far beyond nostalgia. The show features all the rejected commission proposals, so if you thought the plinth brought out your inner art critic you’ll love the opportunity to play a game of ‘what if’. Perhaps you would have liked to peer up at Tracey Emin’s family of meerkats, or make an organ sound a tune by using an ATM installed below. A personal favourite of mine – a stunning mountainous landscape conceived by Mariele Neudecker – would have revealed a map of Britain when looked at from below.

The point here is not to wish for things past, but to engage with the project itself and the astonishingly diverse creative responses it invites. That is precisely why Antony Gormley’s notorious One & Other (available to view in footage from Sky Arts) holds the crown as the seminal plinth commission. By inviting people to spend one hour doing whatever they pleased on this most unusual of stages, Gormley made us all a part of the plinth. He reminds us that contemporary art is not about physical objects or confined to galleries, and deserves more than a quick glance while walking past. Those who call the Fourth Plinth a flashy spectacle have got it wrong: each and every commission has proved that art gives the greatest reward to those who stand and stare.

The Fourth Plinth: Contemporary Monument runs from 5 December to 20 January at the ICA on the Mall


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