Plinth People

Been to Trafalgar Square lately? 

In the northwest corner, on the infamous “empty” fourth plinth, there’s now a stunning work of art called “Ship in a Bottle.”   It’s a replica of “HMS Victory” – the ship in which Admiral Lord Nelson’s scored his decisive naval victory in 1805.  

Trafalgar Square itself stands as something of a civic victory, too. The square was created back in 1840 and ever since it has served as London’s central gathering point. A £25 million redevelopment programme in 2007 put new wind in the sails of a city that cherishes, if not overtly celebrates, freedom of expression.  

“Ship” is truly incredible. The Anglo-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare created all 37 sails from African-style textiles and it is, as branded, indeed encased in a giant glass bottle.  

But for me, nothing tops the fourth plinth quite like last summer’s artwork. 

As Londoners will easily recall, the July 2009 “installation” marked the start of a total of 2,400 individuals who climbed to the top of the plinth to take turns becoming a living work of art.  

The idea was the brainchild of artist Antony Gormley – his work saw one person appear on the Square’s plinth every hour for 100 days. Art specimens ranged from the existentialist humanitarian who did absolutely nothing to the one who dressed as human excrement in a plea for clean drinking water. 



Is it art? That was the question of the day.  

A columnist (Frank Skinner) from The Times then called it “a living portrait of modern Britain” and endorsed it with a quote I love and all cranky cynics will hate: “One of the worst things that can strike down a human being is the slam-dunk closing of the mind – the idea that one’s opinion of something has been finally formulated and now set in stone. I think opinions should be like Plasticine – always open to reshaping, always having the potential to become something new.”   

In the closing ceremonies, Mayor Johnson said “Over the past 100 days we have witnessed the bold, the beautiful and the bizarre. In the age of X Factor and Guitar Hero, Gormley’s plinthers have quite literally stood alone.” 

I loved the idea of the exhibit and have thought our agency would be for the better if we all took on board and exercised more rigorously the symbol of freedom it represented.    

For nearly a year now, Skinner’s column has been crumpled in a corner of my backpack, but yesterday, on the taxi ride from the airport to my Singapore hotel, I saw a billboard for the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School that neatly captured the essence of the Plinth People: 

“SCGS Talent Programme. From a face in the crowd to the one the crowd faces.”