Who wants the grand gesture?
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 this 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?
A 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
photography copyright Jeff Lee 2001.