Plinth by Plinth
Emma Jean Kemp
Curated by Tania Moore: Tania.Moore@hotmail.co.uk
Plinth by Plinth Blog:
Key points from the history of art and current practice
The Abandoned Plinth
My previous blog post discussed the sculptors in the 1960s and 1970s that actively rejected the plinth. The Minimalists were primarily based in America, although their influence was felt internationally. The plinth was also in the consciousness of artists in Europe, although- in the case of Piero Manzoni- in a strikingly different form. Although sharing some of Minimalism’s aesthetic, the Italian artist Manzoni was a forerunner of conceptual art and was playful in his approach. Rather than rejecting the plinth, he utilized and manipulated the form in a particularly avant-garde way.
Manzoni created two pieces, which directly usurped the plinth: Magic Base and Base of the World- both from 1961. The Magic Bases are a number of plinths with a set of footprints atop their surfaces. The artist invites the viewer to stand on the plinth and become a ‘living’ work of art. In contrast, Base of the World is a plinth with its title inscribed, positioned upside-down- thus making the world the living sculpture. The plinths were physically inverse- one being placed upside-down- yet acted in the same way, suggesting that anything placed on the plinth acquires the status of a work of art.
Manzoni was pioneering and Andy Warhol created a similar piece over two decades later in 1985. Warhol’s Invisible Sculpture was a plinth upon which the artist had stood. Like Manzoni - when he signed participants’ bodies or marked eggs with a thumbprint- Warhol plays on the suggestion that the touch of an artist transforms an otherwise average object into a masterpiece. In these pieces the plinth- like the artist- has the power to transform the object into monumental status. Both Manzoni and Warhol’s work maintain a sense of fun as they playfully mock the artistic institution.
The Plinth Rejected: Minimalism
The previous Plinth by Plinth blog posts have considered artists who have utilised the plinth in distinct ways, drawing on its form and inherent meaning to add to the artwork. It may seem counter productive to now consider artists who actively rejected the plinth but exploring the reasons why highlights what the plinth meant to artists at this time which led to such radical changes in how sculpture was viewed.
Minimalism emerged in the 1960s and was prominent throughout the following decade; as its name suggests visual art was stripped back to basic physical forms. Sculptures were often composed of basic block shapes in neutral colours and - key for this context - they were placed directly in the gallery space, on the floor or propped against the walls without the additional structure of a gallery prop.
Sculpture without the support of a plinth meant that it was drawn back to the realm of the everyday; whereas the plinth raised the status of high art - literally as a pedestal - these pieces rested on the floor as any other object. Another result of this was the sculpture now occupied the same space as the viewing body. Robert Morris – a key protagonist of Minimalism - explained that by stripping back the sculpture to its essential components, its internal relationships are reduced (no joints between structural elements, changes in colour or media), allowing the piece to respond to external relationships: with the space and the viewer. This is allowed as the piece directly occupies the shared space of the viewer without the division of the pedestal.
Of course, every radical development is contested and the Minimalists had adversaries at the time. William Tucker writing on sculpture in the 1970s debated the loss of the sculptural base, which – he argued- preserved ‘the internality of the sculptural object’. Judging from Morris’ writings, he likely agreed with this judgment, as he validated sculpture occupying the same space- physically and metaphorically- as the viewer.
Having considered the reasons for the rejection of the plinth is beneficial, as it indicates that up to the mid-twentieth century, the plinth signified a removal of artwork from the everyday and artists wanted to contest this. This is something that has continued to be debated since; many of the responses to the brief for this exhibition were interactive pieces, suggesting that it is still desirable to disrupt the relationship between artwork and viewer and the role that the plinth plays in this.
Fashion Adopts the Plinth
In the run up to the Olympics the fashion world is promoting the victorious attitude that is hoped to envelope the country these coming summer months. Domineering subjects are stemming from the sports fever that is spreading across the nation and once again, the plinth is being used as a tool to convey a powerful status. Last month, a Grazia feature (a top-selling women’s weekly magazine) portrayed a number of the Olympic athletes as statues on top of a plinth. The influential fashion photographer Perou masterminded the shoot in which athletes were spray painted a stone grey and posed in triumphant poses appropriate to their sport. In the shoot the plinth not only acts as a signifier of a statue but it raises the figure above the everyday - referring to the superior status of an Olympian.
Alfred Dunhill similarly referenced the Olympics in its 2012 campaigns; their ‘Voice’ campaign not only features a series of Olympians, past and present, clad in Dunhill’s smart menswear but also video pieces with them discussing how they came to the sport. Recently, the luxury menswear label staged an epic show in Shanghai showcasing its Autumn/Winter 2012 collection. The event was codenamed Trafalgar where models stood on a series of plinths referring to the steps and plinths that compose the London Square. Like the historical London figures, models stayed rooted to the spot, appearing statuesque whilst their surrounding environment changed. CGI effects enveloped them with changing weather conditions from blossoming spring through summer, autumn and culminating in a wintery snowstorm.
Sports stars are getting unprecedented publicity in the lead up to the Olympics and fashion is a major player in this as the victorious flavor is infiltrating the lifestyle sector as a whole. These examples suggest that the plinth is accepted iconography to denote a raised status above the everyday, even in popular culture.
Plinth by Plinth now has a new logo courtesy of Teresa Manero.
Check out her photography and design (website currently under construction): www.teresamanero.com
For your own design needs, contact Teresa: firstname.lastname@example.org
Radiating from the Plinth: Subverted Beauty
Striking objects glow from black plinths in a hidden corner of the Tate Modern.
No Lone Zone is a newly opened exhibition in the Level 2 Gallery of the Tate Modern, presenting arresting work from a selection of Latin American artists. Visitors are greeted by a flag extending floor to ceiling, the central room is littered with intricate sketches, absorbing paintings and engulfing video and sound pieces. The space is interrupted by- possibly the centrepiece of the show- a giant squid oozing ink across the walkway. The varied and enticing display only draws attention to the themes presented within the work based on the social unrest of Latin America. Yet this still does not prepare for the captivating sights upon turning the last corner.
Six radiating offerings hover over the space, which is lined with black plinths, lit only from within. Each miniature display case presents a piece of jewellery, seemingly priceless within the epic display. In fact, you cannot put a price on these pieces, as each are the product of a tragic death. Teresa Margolles’ Score Settling is composed of pieces of jewellery with accents of fractured glass collected from drive-by shootings.
Each case is labeled with a description of the piece, following traditional museum display; reading these, however contradicts the expected description. Each item is paired to a report on the crime that led to the abandoned pieces of glass later appropriated by the artist. The stark description matches the brutal nature of the crimes, often killings stemming from drug dealing and trafficking. The darkened room suits the subject matter as you are drawn in to these tales of murder.
The sinister, glowing jewels seem like a special discovery, as they are not only tucked away at the back of the exhibition space, but the level 2 gallery is a hidden gem within the Tate Modern, with a separate entrance and exhibition programme. Having developed my artistic tastes and career by perusing the thematic and changing displays of the Tate Modern’s permanent collection and whilst immersed in the epic Turbine Hall installations, I didn’t even discover this gallery space until the last year or so. It is a shame that the exhibitions within the space do not receive more attention, as they are influential in highlighting international artists that are lesser known in the UK. However, in this case, the sense of discovery and exclusivity is fitting for the series of plinths that act as glowing shrines to the dead.
The only light source emanates from within the plinths; the shining jewels take centre stage, each gleaming piece referring to a darker history of crime, drugs and death within the fittingly darkened room. If you’re a magpie like me you will undoubtedly be drawn to the space, where the potent objects will have the power to speak to you of their story. Both the lighting and the stories behind each item make the traditional museum display that the plinth format evokes unnervingly exciting.
The Latest Statue Parades (sort of) into Trafalgar Square
“A gleaming talisman”, a “sensitive and fragile creature”, “a Victorian toy . . . an Ikea version”. This week saw the unveiling of the latest Fourth Plinth commission to typically mixed remarks. Trafalgar Square is now home to a 4.1m high golden boy on a rocking horse: Powerless Structures, Fig 101 by Elmgreen and Dragset.
In the Olympic year, it seems a welcome antidote to the customary imagery of victory that the traditional equestrian statues of Trafalgar Square are met by a subversion on the theme: a child on a rocking horse. According to the artists, the statue reasserts “there is more to life than being winners or losers.” The artists themselves though play with the concept (and the toy), suggesting that the boy is like a Victorian but the horse, on the other hand, seems to come from Ikea. In the meanwhile, they describe him as a “sensitive and fragile creature looking to the future.” There are many mixed messages and meanings for the seemingly simple image of a young boy at play.
When I first saw the proposal alongside the other submissions, including the 2013 commission- a giant, blue cockerel by Katharina Fritesche- I thought they were all ridiculous at best. However seeing the sculpture in situ, it does not seem out of place in the surroundings. The golden shimmer intensifies the tones of the surrounding architecture of the National Gallery and the subject matter subtly diverts from the surrounding statues. The statue of a young boy at play adds to the sense of leisure in the central London square.
The statue was always going to have a difficult reception; the Olympics coming to London mean there is even more attention to events this year during the London 2012 Festival, and all things that symbolize London, including the Fourth Plinth commissions. On top of this, the previous commission Yinka Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle was hugely successful, for which there is currently a campaign to keep it on public display in the UK. Shonibare’s ship in a bottle initially seemed to be a signifier of the imperial that is proclaimed elsewhere in the square, but the brightly patterned sails (based on a fabric made by the Dutch in an Indonesian style for the African market) affirm the multicultural London that is celebrated today. This piece- like the current sculpture- subverts the notions of tradition and hierarchy that are found in the traditional imagery of the square, including that of the plinth. These and other successful commissions- including Antony Gormley’s which I discussed in a previous post- directly appropriate the plinth as concept as well as physical stage to enhance the artwork.
Typically, the mayor seems to have missed the point of the piece calling it “a gleaming talisman”, which will hopefully “bring us luck in the medal tables this summer”, either missing the artist’s intentions completely or choosing to ignore them for his own means. The artists rather, choose to affirm the “non-powerful element”, as seen in the playful gestures of the child, which celebrates the future rather than commemorates the past like the other statues around the square. The Fourth Plinth projects always receive considerable attention from the press and most commentators seem to enjoy the subversion of heroism that has been missed by Boris Johnson. The plinth that has become the stage for so many and so varied contemporary art projects represents the domineering powers for whom the plinth was erected 170 years ago and that are still seen on neighbouring plinths. The fact that these recent artists are directly taking these ideas, turning them on their head and producing . . . a giant boy on a rocking horse (for example), suggests that not only have these ideas been overthrown, but that they are so distant we can poke fun at them and toy with the dated concept.
The piece was unveiled to expectant crowds on Thursday, the first day this year sunshine had managed to break through, allowing the gold statue to gleam, suitably referring to heroism, the Olympics and all other things the artwork should or should not denote.
What does a Plinth do?
Tate Learning Evaluate the Plinth
Courtesy of the Tate London Early Years and Families Learning Programme
During a visit to the Tate Modern, I discovered others have been considering the purpose of the plinth as I came across the Clore Learning room. The Tate have been encouraging children to make their own sculptures atop a plinth.
The team at the Tate produced the box template for their 3-dimensional paper sculpture to sit atop. The list of purposes for the plinth gives a great basis for children to start thinking about the object in the art world. The activity was conceived for the Tate London Early Years and Families Learning Programme. Like Plinth by Plinth, the artists- in this case children- physically rework the plinth to reconsider its purpose.
This is a fun activity for children, and for them the plinth makes their sculpture seem valid- like those they see in the galleries. I love that other people are thinking about the role of the plinth in a similar way to me and are encouraging children to consider them as well. The outcome of these is great and I look forward to seeing what the Plinth by Plinth artists come up with too.
The Plinth: Reassessed by Antony Gormley
Antony Gormley famously explores the metaphorical space of the human form through the physical. As a typical foundation for 3-dimensional representations of the figure, the plinth has crept into Gormley’s practice. In the act of raising images of the gods above human level, traditionally the plinth circumstantially referred to the status of the human figure, which is at the fore of Gormley’s contemporary work.
Antony Gormley’s One & Other graced the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square for 100 days in 2010. The project elevated 2,400 members of the public to the London skyline; each took to the plinth for an hour, using the platform according to their own aims. Gormley engineered a ‘portrait of the UK’ through the individual acts of the participants. This was staged at the monumental level of the heroes that permanently adorn the central London square. Andy Warhol’s prophecy that everyone will have fifteen minutes of fame has become imminent in an age of blogging and reality television. In his fourth plinth project, Gormley once again draws the mundane acts of individuals to the status of high art; this is achieved using the established platform of the eminent Trafalgar Square plinth.
More recently, Gormley has played with the concept of the plinth during an intervention in which he raised the floor of the Hermitage Museum in Russia. The act concealed the plinths of the figures in the classical antiquities room. The artist explained, ‘in my Fourth Plinth project in Trafalgar Square, I raised up the everyday life, for an hour at a time, to the level of a statue. Here at the Hermitage my aim has been to bring the gods to earth, to liberate them if you like.’ These words from the prominent artist reinforce the idea that the plinth detaches the subject from everyday life.
Gormley’s two projects demonstrate that at least for this artist, traditional concepts of the plinth are still valid- that the plinth symbolizes hierarchy. The success of the two projects suggests that artistic community and public alike remain determined to reassess these concepts.
The Callout is Out!
Thanks to all who have helped get the word out, especially Jotta.com who are featuring it on their opportunities page:
Excited about contact from artists already and looking forward to receiving more proposals.
Remember the deadline is 17th February.
Plinth by Plinth: an investigation into the role of the plinth in contemporary artistic practice
The exhibition, as part of Fringe Arts Bath, will commission a number of artists to rework a plinth according to their artistic aims. Each artist will remold a standard sized plinth without constraints. Each plinth will rematerialize in completely different forms.
The plinth has been central to the artistic canon since the ancient Greeks portrayed their gods raised above daily life. Tradition dictated that sculpture always be displayed atop a plinth. The twentieth century saw many artists critique and play with these principles. During the sixties and seventies sculpture was brought down to floor level in the movement that became known as Minimalism. From the ancient Greeks to the Minimalists and beyond, the plinth has been crucial in the display of artwork; this exhibition brings the object to the fore.
The exhibition will raise questions about the relevance of the plinth in art today: will the plinth rematerialize as central to the display of artwork, or is the plinth redundant in contemporary society where hierarchies are constantly brought into question.
Follow this blog for debate about the role of the plinth and updates on the exhibition in progress.
Send images (a sketch at this stage is fine) and a short explanation of the work and how it relates to the concept of Plinth by Plinth to email@example.com.
The deadline is 17th February 2012.
Please note, submission is free but there will be a £10 fee for artists who are selected.