Rachel Whiteread's Monument at Trafalgar Square and show at the Serpentine Gallery
Who wants the grand gesture?

Rachel Whiteread's Monument on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square 2001Monument

Rachel Whiteread has finally secured her Monument on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square as part of a series of public artworks on this location. Weighing in at some 11 tonnes, Monument is one for the Guiness Book of Records, being the largest object ever cast in resin. The project has been beset by problems. The final outcome is the 10th attempt. The cost is estimated at a cool quarter of a million pounds. So what's the reaction?

The Press Reaction

The Daily Mail said it was politically correct. This is on the basis that the work was endorsed by the (when it was unveiled) Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, one of Tony Blair's cronies. The other tier to Rachel Whiteread's Monument on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square 2001this powerful and compelling argument is the Culture Department's claim that Monument is 'relevant'. The Mail went on to list the historical military credentials of the other statues in Trafalgar Square. Before this sounds like the Mail being very male about Whiteread, it's worth noting that the article rubbished all the previous occupants of the fourth plinth. The Mail 's political spin on Monument may seem bizarre. But you have to account for context. The general election was held the following day and the Mail has become the unofficial opposition party in Britain.

At the other end of the political spectrum, the Guardian was just as absurd. "...[it] declares only itself..." puffed Adrian Searle. "It is like the first stuttering levels of Constantin Brancusi's 1937 Endless Column in Romania, a plangent image of the metaphorical possibilities of repetition and endlessness." Gulp! "Whiteread's Monument is... a sculpture that aspires to the condition of ice, of the ungraspable. It is a sculpture that both wants to declare itself and to disappear." This made it into Pseuds Corner in the satirical mag, Private Eye. But then it wouldn't have if Searle had written about the work instead of the cure for cancer.

Is Monument An Anachronism?

All this press attention is inevitable for the grand pedestal that is Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth, and the grand manner in which Whiteread has approached it. In fact, Monument belongs to an art tradition of yore, both in its formality and grandiosity. Isn't the large public sculpture an anachronism? Isn't it part of the history books like Henry Moore's reclining nudes and even Jeff Koons's Puppy? Hasn't the public become jaded by the grand gesture? Hasn't the endless launch culture perpetuated by the likes of Microsoft and Andrew Lloyd-Webber made swishing curtains a turn-off? Hasn't the symphony, long the format for the grand gesture in classical music, been all but abandoned by contemporary composers, apart from a few exceptions like Gorecki?

Ecce Homo: Modesty Personified?

Mark Wallinger's Ecce Homo on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square 1999A previous occupant on the fourth plinth, Mark Wallinger's Ecce Homo, was, by contrast, magnetic. In a way it was the reverse of the grand gesture. Jesus, son of God, is the grand gesture to many. But Wallinger's Christ was lifesize, dwarfed by the plinth, standing on its precipice, small, humble, god reduced to human form, head bowed before the people, hands lashed behind his back, biblically awaiting judgement from the masses. A bit like religion in fin-de siecle Britain. There was something heartening and ordinary in this figure. Its largesse was in its ramifications.

Whiteread's claim that she doesn't have to execute large public works, and that the sale of her small pieces have funded this venture sounds very generous. But isn't it disingenuous too? Monument''s position in Trafalgar Square ensures its worldwide replication during its stay. Its scale will ensure it becomes a conversation piece for millions of tourists who take their snaps in one of London's most visited places. As long ago as the 1930s, Walter Benjamin argued that the mechanical reproduction of an artwork, far from denigrating its 'aura', enhances it by symbolising its social importance in being reproduced in the first place. It's a kind of 'no publicity is bad publicity' argument.

The Audience Reaction

But this is all contingent on people actually paying attention, let alone including the work in their snaps. I thought it might be a good idea to get the ultimate say so on Monument by interviewing the very audience it's aimed at. Everyone looking at it can tell me what they think, I thought. The only snag though was that in the half hour of my visit not one single person in the crowded square gave it any attention. The real focus was on bathing in the fountains in the midsummer heat. But perhaps this isn't so bad for Whiteread. For by fortuitous coincidence she has a show running concurrently at the Serpentine.

The Serpentine Gallery Show

This is where casting, and its recording of surfaces, carries the up close and personal so well. Untitled (Novels) is cast directly from bookshelves in Hackney Public Library. 'Not to be taken away' one of the mirrored impressions says with ironic reference to the sculpture's copying process. Perhaps even to its viewers' memories. There is something about history and truth going on here. The novels were fictions narrating their writers' truths. They were selected by senior librarians as suitable for Hackney's readership. The sculpture captures them in the order they were at the time. Which library section it's from is left to your imagination.

Even more personal are the beds. One, (Airbed II), is made, perhaps kinkily, from polyurethane rubber. Another, (Black Bed), has a seam like on a put-me-up foldaway bed. Who shagged who on these? And how many? These are base but immediate questions. This implied seediness is smoothed over in the plain and unpatterened surfaces. Another, (Amber Bed), sits bent in the middle at 90 degrees, slumped against a wall, perhaps from a damp alley, now resurrected and exhalted, the dirtiness now cleaned up so that even your local vicar can admire. It's like Rauschenberg but airbrushed.

In Table and Chair (Clear), the space beneath both items is rendered in a treacle coloured resin. Maybe your said vicar wrote letters of disgust here? Maybe he wrote kinky love-notes about polyurethane? Maybe however you experienced sitting and writing is there. Partly the suggestion is the unseen areas too. The effect is highly physical. In all this is a subjectivity, a historic feel, and an audience participation that is absent in the cast of the fourth plinth. So in one location Whiteread has brought us small, important things, but in another these are missing in a helluva big way.

Rachel Whiteread's Monument is on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square until May 2002.
Her show is at the Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London W2 - 020 7298 1515, until 5th August 2001

Review and photography copyright Jeff Lee 2001.
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