A giant toy duck was waddling on top of the fourth plinth when I arrived in Trafalgar Square mid-morning. The Duckman was placarded to indicate that he was representing the Rotary Club of Amwell. He waved at onlookers below, then swiveled and waved at others on the porch outside the National Gallery.
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An orange cherrypicker drove up. The Duckman’s hour on the plinth was done. He was a participant in the Antony Gormley project, One and Other, which hoists citizens atop the plinth and which was well into a nonstop 100-day run. “He’s brilliant, that guy! He waved at us,” a woman carrying a Harrods bag told another Rotarian standing below. How would this benefit the Amwell Rotary Club, I asked?
“Just being up there and being photographed,” he said.
Traffic, including a double-decker bus with an ad for "BBC Proms. An Unforgettable Night Out," was working its way slowly past as the Duckman was winched down.
There’s a grand tradition of treating a live human body as sculpture. Christo wrapped the fashion model Ruth Ebling in see-through plastic in London in 1964, and Luigi Ontani, the Italian performance artist, made Quadri Umani human sculptures in 1969. I never saw the Ontani but I was in Manhattan’s Sean Kelly Gallery in 2002, when Marina Abramovic lived in public naked for three weeks on elevated platforms that supported an austerely equipped sitting room, bedroom, and bathroom. And it was an intense experience that Gormley’s populist addition to the canon seemed unlikely to match.
Aspirants to plinthhood nominated themselves and were picked at random by a computer. The Duckman’s successor occupied his time by floating colored paper planes down, most of which were collected by swarming children. He was followed by a woman with straight black hair and glasses who was winched up, attended by a couple of the crew. There was mild clapping as she stepped onto the plinth wearing a black T-shirt and black trousers and carrying a bag and a bottle of water. A few people waved. She did not respond. She was the observer, not us, which she underlined by bringing out a camera and photographing the upturned crowd.
Two balloons floated skyward in front of the Canadian Pacific building. A helicopter chugged above and there was the wail of a siren. A mild-looking fellow walked by wearing a T shirt: FUCK ART. LET’S DANCE. The thing about a time-based performance art in which nothing much happens—but which still requires that its audience remain receptive for as long as they might dedicate to, say, a movie—is that it makes you preternaturally alert to what’s going on around you. Certainly the Gormley project was making me sensitive to the ambient life of Trafalgar Square.
The cherrypicker returned carrying a man in a black ninja bodystocking with a white skull face attached and skeleton parts on his limbs. He stuck more to his arm and back as he was winched up. The woman in black photographed him as he rose to her level, carrying a white bicycle. His team distributed leaflets noting that 22 cyclists had been crushed by traffic in London since 2008. It was a cyclist support group. The woman in black walked by. Why had she gone up? “I’m an art historian,” she said. “I wanted to know what it felt like being a living sculpture.”
And how did it feel?
“It felt a little bit like being God,” she said.
I took a lunch break, passing a duo playing what a sign described as "ethnic fusion music" and two silver-painted mimes. When I got back, a thin, impressively motionless man in dark glasses had replaced the Skeleton. His T-shirt had a message on the back: AWARENESS.
The group next to me had had their fill. “That’s the National Gallery,” one of them told a young girl. “That’s where all this country’s major works of art are.” They left the Gormley projcct for the Titians.
The angular man was replaced by a young blonde representing a children’s hospice. Why had he gone up? “Because I want to find nice people and make them aware of Awareness,” he said. “I’ve set up a Web site.”
The hospice blonde was succeeded by an older woman with a long plume in her hair, as if in an Edward Gorey drawing. She had brought a microphone aloft and a book bag. This looked promising but her words were swept away.
“Nobody has a clue what she’s on about” a man said.
“Can you tell her to speak up?” a woman asked a young policeman, “It’s nothing to do with me” he said. But pleasantly.
The problem got through to the reader. She fiddled with the mike and asked if that were better.
“Slightly” somebody said,
She read Shelley’s "Ozymandias." There was dutiful clapping.
Traffic inching by included a double decker bearing a sign: WEDDING SPECIAL JONATHAN AND ROBERTO. The crammed upper deck cheered the reader and some lifted Champagne flutes. This added muscle-tone to her act. She began talking about attitudes toward “A woman of my age in society” and made a joke about Botox.
The applause was real. She had won them over.
It seems redundant to point out that the Gormley project has been the vehicle for the 10th muse of the early 21st century—Marketing—and for the self-promoters who are the offspring of reality TV. And, yes, I had been pretty leery of the Gormley project at the beginning. Well, I was wrong. It’s a public art that to an unusual extent actually does work on the public and Trafalgar Square did seem affected by its presence. And not just Trafalgar Square. A discussion of the project was worked into the script of one of Britain’s longest running radio serials, The Archers.
Increasingly there is a popular interest in contemporary art that is independent of what is going on amongst the upper echelons of dealers and auction houses. And into this new paradigm the Gormley Project fits perfectly.
Anthony Haden-Guest is the news editor of Charles Saatchi’s online magazine.