There was a naked man on the fourth plinth

One & Other HQ

Life There was a naked man on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square when I was going to bed on the night I got back from London (Tuesday). As I said in the blog post I wrote while I was up there, I felt just as exposed on Monday morning, though obviously without the police asking me to cover myself up and passers-by chanting obscenities. Having cultivating what I like to think is a certain level of mystery on the blog and elsewhere online for the past however many years, there I am in a video on the web (if you’ll pardon the depressing self absorption and brutal honesty), waddling about, with bad hair, the sun bouncing brightly off my forehead, wittering to myself about the clothes I’m wearing, in a t-shirt big enough that the dozens of helicopters that hover across the capital could have used me as a marker during that hour if their navigation systems had malfunctioned.

That’s not me is it? Really? REALLY? That explains ... everything…

And the crucial thing is I’ve done it and I’m very pleased and feel very privileged that I’ve done it and the ancillary broadcast is besides the point and it was at the nucleus of three very happy (if not entirely uneventful) days in London. I’ll talk about the rest some other time. The plinthing experience begins an hour and a half before the “show”. You’re welcomed into the portacabin offered a drink and given some forms to sign, from Sky Arts for use of your image and from Artichoke the company producing One & Other agreeing that they’ve done everything to safeguard your safety so if you hurl yourself off it’s not their fault (incidentally, Artichoke were also behind La Machine, the giant spider that trampled Liverpool underfoot last year).

The fourth plinth was originally designed by Sir Charles Barry for an equestrian statue in the 1840s, but a lack of funds led to the construct remaining notoriously empty for nearly a century and half. From 1998 onwards, artists have been commissioned to fill the space which has led to site specific pieces from the likes of Rachel Whiteread, Mark Quinn, Mark Wallinger and now Antony Gormley. The expectation might have been that Gormley would produce another in his long line of body casts in bronze, like the Angel of the North or like the statues in Another Place on Crosby Beach. Instead, as a new way of investigating “the distinction between what we look like and who we are” he is asking volunteers to each stand on the plinth for an hour, twenty-four hours a day for one hundred days and Sky are filming the results.

What’s important about the initiation process is that you’re made to feel special, that your contribution is important. The helpers who welcome you into Antony Gormley’s world all make a point of introducing themselves, are chatty, genuinely seem pleased to see you and want to make sure you enjoy this strange and rather wonderful experience. Without them, I can honestly say it wouldn’t have been the same. We chatted about the project, about the other plinthers, about the media reaction (that it has in general misunderstood what the project is about and I agree with them) and what the legacy might be. I won’t say too much more about them because they deserve their anonymity (especially since now and then I think they too go up on the plinth if someone doesn’t turn up and those hours don’t appear on the website).

After the forms, there was a safety briefing (no glass, no naked flames) and an interview. As part of the project, Artichoke have been asked by the Wellcome Trust to collect the testimonies of all of the plinthers to create an aural history archive so that the twenty-four hundred of us taking the stand/plinth, aren’t simply anonymous faces and that our contribution isn’t just visual. I’m not entirely sure how useful my contributions will be. After some general queries (name, date of birth, job) and what I’d be doing on the plinth (and so why I write this blog), the focus careened to who I am as a person, what experiences I think made me who I am today. It was eight o’clock in the morning. I went for a ramble. I explained that I didn’t think there was just one thing, or a couple. I said that probably we inherit some things from our parents, behaviourally and genetically, but that I was sure that there wasn’t a single turning point, but suggested that One & Other could turn out to be it.

Then, after having my photograph taken (a moment which as ever featured me trying to solve the puzzle of which is my left and which my right), being fitted with a microphone, it was time to go to the plinth. As you may have seen from the video, you travel across the square on the cherry picker, before being lifted aloft, which could make you feel like a may queen or you’re on your way to an execution depending upon your emotional history. The picker lifts up and over the protective safety net and then after sharing a few words with the previous incumbent (a lady called Jane who’d worked on a sketch of London’s brilliant parade), a wait for a requested safety pole to be added (because I didn’t have a chair), I’d stepped off onto the stone top. Ian Jones was already there and you can see me saying hello on the video and everything else.

With a microphone on, the first impulse was to talk. I notice that not all plinthers have them, or take them off, but knowing that I would be reading out those blog entries I kept it were it was and just started wittering on, mostly nonsense but very much on the understanding that I was broadcasting rather than talking to myself, presumably friends who’d tuned in and as I said “the twitter hecklers” though checking back I notice I didn’t have many of those. I’ve gone back and checked. Beforehand @davegorman was watching to see what I might do (which is a surprise – how does he know who I am?), @damonquerry was nice enough to post a screen grab and noticed my shameless plugging of Behind The Sofa, @mumsrgreat luckily (for her) couldn’t get sound and wondered what I was reading out (here and here) and @neilperryman later said he hoped I was going to do more than put on sunscreen (a highlight I’m sure you’ll agree).

My second impulse was to pace, the third to wave and then make value judgements on people who didn’t wave back, the fourth to take some photos, the fifth ... you get the idea. I had my photo taken a few times and some people visited and unwittingly became part of the action, either because Sky filmed them or because I mentioned them in my blog post. Looking back, I’m surprised by how coherent that was even if the handwriting, punctuation and spelling is atrocious. I sadly don’t have any further “insights” other than what I said in my interview, that I’ve always had this horrible, possibly crippling, tendency not to do things, look for excuses and reasons not to do them, when that’s no way to go through life. Though I’ve been blessed with plenty of experiences, I’ve also denied myself a range of others, of the One & Other variety, which is something that has to stop. Just do them. It doesn’t matter and it also doesn’t matter what people think of you, should it be archived online.

You’ll hear me register some surprise at the forty-five minute mark should you get that far. Time slipped by. Before too long the cherry picker was heading in my direction and I’d stepped off again, to be replaced by Rachel who did some origami which she threw into the square. Back to the cabin via cherry picker and once I’d signed to visitors book (lots of uses of the words “wow” and “excellent” and “thank you”) it was all over, albeit with me retaining a certain sense of bewilderedness. My friend Leonie (who’s in the video) met me and we went sight seeing. Thank goodness. I expect that if I’d simply walked away alone, it would have been with a deep sense of anti-climax and the whole day would have been about that, but exciting events were to come, if not more so. But that’s a story, for, well, another time …

Plinth Camera

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