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Clothing a square's naked space Art: England is faced with a difficult decision about how to fill the space atop Trafalgar Square's only empty plinth.


LONDON -- Pigeons pelt it. Tourists flood it. Cars choke it. And Londoners either love it or loathe it, depending on the gridlock.

Trafalgar Square is a patch of concrete, bronze and marble that still arouses great passion more than 150 years after its modern makeover. This is where buses lurch at pedestrians like wounded bulls in a Spanish ring, where protesters launch campaigns and soccer fans celebrate and riot.

And now, Trafalgar Square is poised to become the scene of another quintessentially British public rite -- the struggle over art.

Yesterday, plans were unveiled to temporarily place three sculptures atop a plinth that has remained barren since its 19th-century creation. Modern and somewhat mysterious, the sculptures are due to be rotated between mid-1999 and mid-2001, pending approval from rigorous planning bodies.

"Having something on a plinth might provoke a debate on modern art and make people look at their surroundings," says Prue Leith, deputy chairman of the Royal Society of Arts, which is pushing the project. "It's amazing how many people don't know there is nothing on that plinth."

So begins the final stage of the campaign to dress up Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth, the naked one.

Leith first noticed the empty pedestal while stuck in traffic. Unlike most people, she decided to do something about this historic oversight -- she wrote a letter to a local newspaper and then launched the effort to fill in the empty space. In recent months, the public was asked to submit ideas for the plinth. A statue of Queen Elizabeth II topped the list, with former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher emerging as a runner-up, and strong support noted for South African President Nelson Mandela.

The queen was ruled out because statues of living royals are confined to private spaces in Britain. As for going the political route, Leith says, "as a panel we thought it was very dangerous to have living politicians. You just never know what will happen with a living politician."

There were also proposals to honor the rogue trader who brought down Barings Bank (Nick Leeson), a mercurial soccer star (Paul Gascoigne), and even the bird that has come to symbolize -- and soil -- the square over the years (a giant pigeon).

After much debate by a panel of art and monument experts, 19 artists were invited to make proposals, 10 submissions were received and three were crowned as winners.

There's a small marble "Ecce Homo" (Behold the Man), that sculptor Mark Wallinger views as a humble, human Christ gazing down across the square, his hands tied together.

Bill Woodrow's bronze sculpture, "Regardless of History," will consist of a toppled human head, a large book and a rooted tree that he says "makes reference to the never-ending cyclical relationship between civilizations, knowledge and the forces of nature."

And Rachel Whiteread is prepared to turn the slab upside down, with an inverted cast of the plinth in water-clear resin, which the artist claims will provide a "quiet moment for the space."

Whiteread has said, "after spending time in Trafalgar Square observing the people, traffic, pigeons, architecture, sky and fountains, I became acutely aware of the general chaos of Central London life."

Trafalgar Square is London at its most chaotic, a main thoroughfare that connects east and west, north and south.

The square commemorates Horatio Nelson's victory over the combined French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. "England expects that every man will do his duty," Nelson signaled before the battle that would claim his life. England's famed seaman is now immortalized with the Nelson Column, the fluted column topped by a statue that anchors the square and is guarded by four enormous bronze lions.

The country's great repository of art, the National Gallery, has a commanding position on the north side. From here, a pedestrian can take in the human scale of the elegant square, which is bordered by High Commissions at South Africa House and Canada House, and opens on to Whitehall, where Big Ben and the House of Parliament lurk in the distance.

NTC Just outside the National Gallery stands George Washington, a bronze replica of a marble original in Virginia.

At the southern edge of the square, buffeted by traffic, is an equestrian statue of Charles I, looking down Whitehall to the place where he was executed during the 17th-century English Civil War. Orders to destroy the work were ignored, and the statue was re-erected by Charles II in 1675.

On this site, a King's Mews was established, royal hawks and falconers were lodged, and during the Civil War, the area was a barracks for the Parliamentary army. Taverns, coffee houses and even a public gallows were crammed in the area during the 18th century.

During the 19th century, the area took on its present look, as the Mews and barracks gave way to great public buildings. Famed architect Charles Barry, who designed the Palace of Westminster, home to Britain's Parliament, was commissioned to lay out the square. His 1841 design included a broad terrace in front of the National Gallery, two stairways and four pedestals, one on each side of the square.

Three of the corners are manned by a statue of George IV, a bronze of soldier and statesman Charles Napier and a statue of 19th-century warrior Gen. Henry Havelock.

The fourth plinth awaits the arrival of the modern art.

Busts of seemingly long-forgotten naval heroes, two magnificent fountains tiled in blue, benches, and the ever-present pigeons grown fat on the feed served up by the tourists, dominate the rest of the square. Every effort to rid the area of its pigeons is usually met by outrage from tourists and tour operators.

London simply wouldn't be London without this ever-vibrant square.

"It is an unusually busy place visually," says the sculptor Bill Woodrow. "It's never still or quiet, unless it's two in the morning."

With the proposal to fill the fourth plinth, Londoners will be forced to think long and hard about the square, its looks and its uses. Leith says the odds are only 60-40 in favor of the plinth project being approved.

Would modern-day planning boards approve, say, the Nelson Column?

Leith says, "I don't think so."

Pub Date: 12/08/98

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