Turner Prize-winner Rachel Whiteread has called for the end of the fourth pedestal sculpture program amid fresh evidence of the difficulties artists like her face have in finding a permanent home for their work.
The Guardian has established that three-quarters of the former Fourth Pedestal commissions are currently in storage, and only one is on display in the UK.
Whiteread’s own resin cast of the plinth has not been seen in public since it appeared on the Trafalgar Square site in 2001. She said the program needed to be reconsidered.
“I think it ended up,” she told the Guardian, “there were some great projects and then there were some that weren’t so great.”
The original intention of the program was to find a permanent home for a contemporary monument on the empty plinth. Whiteread said: “There is still no permanence. It was great to have a display space for however long, but I think it has done its time as a pedestal. One of the most interesting things that can be done now is just to leave it empty.”
She suggested that the 24-year history of the program could be displayed on a sign near the pedestal, or on a phone app. She said: “People who make these decisions need to think long and hard because the art world is a very different place now, and Trafalgar Square is a very different environment now.”
Whiteread could not find a home for her fourth pedestal. “You move on and just try to be philosophical about these things. It’s very difficult in this country to make public sculpture and get it permanent, especially in a place like Trafalgar Square.”
Referring to her move away from monumental work, she added: “That’s why I make shy sculptures now – it’s the way to make these things happen and make them permanent.”
Other fourth plinth artists share Whiteread’s frustration. Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz said of his 2018 work The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist: “I have no idea when it will be seen again. Having pieces in storage is always a bummer.”
He described the fourth pedestal program as “magical” and “very rare”, but suggested that more attention should be paid to what happens after works are taken down. He said: “There’s all this labor and material that goes into work. It would not only be tragic, but also unethical if something was then just thrown away.”
David Shrigley says it would be a “huge tragedy” to stop the show. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do anything that meant more to me,” he said, referring to the selection of Really Good, his 7 meter tall elongated bronze thumbs up last seen on the plinth in 2018.
Shrigley was granted £130,000 by the London Mayor’s Office to do the work. It has since cost almost as much to save the work. “Since it’s been in storage for five years, it’s probably approaching six figures,” he said. “Art storage is a burgeoning industry.”
Like Whiteread, Shrigley had to sell smaller versions of his fourth pedestal work to make it financially viable. “Artwork is there to be shown and for people to enjoy,” he said.
Shrigley considered donating the work, but did not want to burden an institution with the cost of transporting and displaying a sculpture weighing several tons. And he added: “The context is half the job. So it’s really hard to take something out of context and put it somewhere else.” The high percentage of former fourth pedestal pieces in storage was “not necessarily representative of a failure”, he said. “They all have a value, they’re just hard to position. As for the redundancy of civic art, the fourth plinth is a drop in the ocean. It is probably very useful to have such a conversation. It might make people think again.”
In the early 2000s, after the first three sculptures appeared, the public had to vote on which should be chosen to be permanently placed on the vacant plinth. That idea was abandoned in favor of the current continuous two-year program.
“It was a hazy mess of the original intent,” said Whiteread, whose Monument was one of those three pieces.
Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo was the first contemporary sculpture to appear on the plinth. He said that despite its high profile, the program had not changed the appearance of public spaces. He said: “Many of our civic spaces are still Victorian in age and outlook, [an era that was] not one that admitted much doubt or room for the oppressed or dispossessed.
“Of course there needs to be a debate about what we want from our civic spaces and art in the public realm. There has been very little commissioned work since the war to reflect the times we have lived through, and too many bronze relics of the empire, anachronistic at best, remain on their plinths.”