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The Fourth Plinth Project (Trafalgar Square)

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Ecce Homo, by Mark Wallinger (1999) / Regardless of History, by Bill Woodrow (2000) / Monument, by Rachel Whiteread (2001) / Marc Quinn: Alison Lapper Pregnant (2005) / Thomas Schutte: Hotel for the Birds (2007)

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      18.09.2007 20:18
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      Nelson's latest lady friend in Trafalgar Square

      As is so often the case with public projects and big plans, when the money runs out, it's easy to work on the "don't worry, they'll never notice we didn't finish" principle. And so it was at Trafalgar Square. It was designed in 1838 by Sir Charles Barry and a few years later the square was named in honour of the 1805 naval victory at Trafalgar. Over the years bits got added on as the square developed into a major public space in the nation's capital.

      There probably wasn't too much trouble pulling together the money for a whopping great phallic column and a statue of Admiral Lord Nelson - after all, throughout history we've never been backward about celebrating a victory over the French. Money was found for some very attractive lions that are much loved and climbed over by tourists and there are some lovely fountains that are fun to frolic in on a hot day or use as an impromptu urinal on New Year's Eve (consider that next time you take off your shoes and socks for a paddle). But have you ever noticed the three very grand bronze gentlemen on the plinths at the corners of the square? And more importantly did you notice that a square has four corners and yet there are only three statues? Welcome to the mystery of the fourth plinth.

      George IV sits on one of the plinths - his statue was placed there temporarily after his death in 1830 but like so many temporary exhibits, he bedded down nicely and nobody bothered to move him. By the end of the 19th century nobody could remember who the fella on the horse was so an inscription was added underneath - ah the indignity of being overshadowed by a sailor.

      In 1856 General Charles Napier was placed on the west side. General Charles who? Yep, even in his day I don't think he was ever a household name because he spent most of his days in India fighting with the locals. The third plinth hosts Major General Sir Henry Havelock who also spent most of his career putting down rebellions in India.

      And the fourth plinth has a large white Carrera marble statue of a heavily pregnant lady born with deformed limbs. The statue is called 'Alison Lapper Pregnant' and it stands on the North West plinth close to the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery.

      I recall clearly the outcry when it was announced that the statue of Alison Lapper would stand on the fourth plinth. If they'd announced that a nude statue of the Queen doing the cancan was to be placed there, I don't think there could have been more fuss. To those who loathe all things new, this must have seemed like the worst possible abomination of tradition and a case of political correctness gone mad. Not just a statue of a WOMAN in a square full of men, but a DISABLED woman at that (let's forget for a moment that the big guy in the middle of the square is one of British history's most famous disabled warriors). And as if that wasn't bad enough, she's not only PREGNANT but NAKED as well. How much less in keeping with the setting could this statue possibly be? The tea cups of England must have rattled the length and breadth of the land as the good folks read about the statue in the Daily Mail whilst they tucked into their morning toast.

      And so it was that I heard all about the controversy and then promptly forgot all about it. That is until a recent visit to London when, quite by chance, I stumbled across the Fourth Plinth and Alison Lapper and I fell in love. I suppose I am quite susceptible to being moved by art but generally sculpture does nothing for me. I'd rather have a great painting and statues tend to seem somehow too cold. But when I saw Alison Lapper I was completely astonished and the sight left me feeling like I'd been kicked in the gut. After all the controversy, I'd expected something a bit tacky or possibly even exploitative. What I found instead was a work of such strength and dignity that I wanted to know more about how she came to be there and why the artist Marc Quinn had chosen her as his subject.

      When the statue was unveiled in September 2005 by Mayor Ken Livingstone he called it "an artwork that is a potent symbol - about courage, beauty and defiance..Alison Lapper Pregnant is a modern heroine - strong, formidable and full of hope". And I say Hoorah to that.

      Alison Lapper was born without arms and with shortened legs caused by a chromosomal abnormality called phocomelia and not, as most people seem to assume, due to thalidomide. She was brought up in a children's home after her mother rejected her and she has become a successful and controversial artist in her own right. When she became pregnant with her son Parys many people questioned her ability to cope with a small child and the defiance and refusal to go along with what other people think shines through in the determined jut of her jaw in the statue. She and Parys are familiar to many UK TV viewers due to their involvement in the TV series Child of Our Time presented by Robert Winston.

      The statue is 3.5 m tall and is made of white Carrera marble weighing a massive 13 tonnes. The artist Marc Quinn is famous - or perhaps notorious would be a better word - for making a frozen statue of his own head using nine pints of his own blood, so perhaps its unsurprising that he chose such a controversial subject. However, when you find yourself on a grey rainy day in Trafalgar Square, watching the pigeons sitting on the statue, it's incredibly easy to forget the controversy and just be awed by the impact of this big bold statue and almost impossible not to admire both the artist and his subject.

      Alison Lapper Pregnant was due to spend just 18 months on the Fourth Plinth and to then be replaced by a conceptual piece called 'Hotel for the Birds'. As far as I know she's still there two years later - but don't hang around. Go and have a look because at any time she could be gone. And if you have a lot of money in your pocket, I believe she's even up for sale.

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