The fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, London, has been empty since 1841 when Charles Barry designed the square. Barry meant for this plinth, in the north-west corner of the square, to be for an equestrian statue of William IV, to stand alongside the other three statues, depicting George IV, Sir Charles Napier and Sir Henry Havelock. Lack of funds at the time prevented this fourth statue from being created.
After 150 years of debate about the plinth, in 1998, the Royal Society of Arts commissioned three contemporary sculptures to be displayed temporarily on the site. In 2003, Greater London Authority assumed responsibility for the fourth plinth, under the stewardship of the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group.
The first artwork to be placed on the Fourth Plinth was Mark Wallinger's statue 'Ecce Homo'. The artwork shows Christ with his hands bound behind his back and with a crown of barbed wire. It presents Christ as a lone man standing before a hostile crowd, as he awaits judgement moments before he was sentenced to death.
Ecce Homo means 'Behold the man', a reference to the words of Pontius Pilate at the trial of Jesus (John 19:5).
Mark Wallinger (b.1959)
White marble resin
Regardless of History
Bill Woodrow's sculpture was of a head crushed between a book and the roots of a tree. The artwork represents the supremacy of nature over civilisation, as can also be found in the jungles of South America or Thailand, where deserted temples have been reclaimed by nature. Woodrow here emphasises humanity’s fragility in the face of nature, suggesting that we should remain respectful of nature’s power and our place in a natural order, and most significantly, learn from our history.
Bill Woodrow (b.1948)
H 560 x W 540 x D 245 cm
Rachel Whiteread's 'Monument' was a cast of the plinth in transparent resin placed upside-down on top of the original. The light refracted through the resin, adopting a hue that was partially influenced by the weather.
Rachel Whiteread (b.1963)
Alison Lapper Pregnant
The first Mayor of London commission was a 3.6m tall, 13-tonne Carrara marble figure of the artist Alison Lapper. She was born with phocomelia and has no arms and shortened legs. The sculpture publicly celebrated a different idea of beauty. It asked us to question our narrow view of what is and what isn’t socially acceptable.
The sculpture’s presence was also a huge boost for disabled rights in the UK. A huge inflatable version of the sculpture was later a centrepiece of the London 2012 Paralympic Games opening ceremony.
Marc Quinn (b.1964)
H 360 cm
Model for a Hotel
‘Model for a Hotel’ was a reproduction or scaled-up architectural model of a 21-storey building. The base was the same size as the plinth, but the angles of the hotel extended out at strange angles and different heights. That meant that from each side, a different shape and a different context or background was revealed.
The work was made in specially engineered red, yellow and blue Perspex. At the time, it was the first sculpture on the plinth to use bold colour in stark contrast to its surroundings.
Thomas Schütte (b.1954)
One and Other
‘One & Other’ was a fascinating portrait of the UK in the 21st century. Every hour, 24 hours a day for 100 days, different people stood on the Fourth Plinth. The 2,400 people who took part were chosen at random. Participants used their time on the plinth as they wished – to perform, to demonstrate or simply reflect.
Gormley’s work helped the Fourth Plinth to become a household name. It garnered attention across the world. It even spawned a storyline in BBC Radio 4 drama The Archers and coined a new term, ‘plinther’.
Antony Gormley (b.1950)
Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle
‘Nelson's Ship in a Bottle’ was a scale (1:30) replica of HMS Victory in a bottle. It was the first commission by a black British artist, and the first to reflect on its setting. Trafalgar Square commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar, and links directly with Nelson’s column. The ship's 37 large sails were made of patterned textiles typical of African dress. They are used to show African identity and independence. The work considers the legacy of British colonialism and its expansion in trade and Empire. This was made possible through the freedom of the seas and the new trade routes that Nelson’s victory provided.
It now has a permanent home at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
Yinka Shonibare (b.1962)
Mixed media, including: acrylic (PMMA), cast resin, wood, brass & printed canvas
H 280 x W 250 x D 500 cm
Powerless Structures, Fig 101
The Fourth Plinth was meant to hold a bronze equestrian statue of King William IV by Sir Charles Barry. It was never installed. Some 170 years later, Elmgreen & Dragset completed the process with their unique take on traditional equestrian statues. ‘Powerless Structures, Fig. 101’ was a golden-bronze sculpture of a boy astride his rocking horse. In situ, the child became a historical hero like the other statues in the square. Instead of acknowledging the heroism of the powerful, the work celebrated the heroism of growing up. As yet, for the boy there is no history to commemorate – only a future to hope for.
‘Powerless Structures, Fig 101’ is now in the Arken Museum of Modern Art, Denmark.
Elmgreen & Dragset
H 410 cm
‘Hahn/Cock’ was a huge sculpture of a cockerel. Standing almost 5m tall, the vivid blue artwork really stood out in the square. In art, the cockerel is a symbol regeneration, awakening and strength. Fritsch said if reflects our image of ourselves: 'people can see themselves, their character, in animals'. The statue was also comment on the masculine character of the square, with its formal equestrian statues and many statues of men.
Hahn/Cock is on long-term loan to the National Gallery of Art, Washington from the Glenstone Museum, Maryland, USA.
Katharina Fritsch (b.1956)
H 472 cm
‘Gift Horse’ was a skeletal, riderless horse in bronze. It was based on an etching by George Stubbs, an English painter whose works can be seen in the National Gallery. Tied to the horse’s front leg was an electronic ribbon with a live ticker of the London Stock Exchange. This completed the link between power, money and history. The sculpture directly references the equestrian statue of William IV originally planned for the plinth.
Hans Haacke (b.1936)
Horse: bronze with black patina & wax finish, stainless steel fasteners & supports; bow: 5 mm flexible led display, stainless steel armature & polycarbonate face
H 464.8 x W 429.3 x D 165.1 cm
'Really Good' was cast in bronze with the same dark patina as the other statues in the Square, the comic extension of the thumb bringing it up to ten metres in height. Shrigley's ambition is that this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy; that things considered 'bad', such as the economy, the weather and society, will benefit from a change of consensus towards positivity.
Shrigley's daily tirade of satirical vignettes takes the British tradition of satire into three and four dimensions. In his drawings and animations protagonists express their dark impulses and are subject to the violence and irrationality of life, while his sculptures are often jokes in 3D form, reflecting the absurdity of contemporary society.
David Shrigley (b.1968)
The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist
'The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist' is a project that Rakowitz started in 2006. It attempts to recreate more than 7,000 objects looted from the Iraq Museum in 2003 or destroyed at archaeological sites across the country in the aftermath of the war. For the Fourth Plinth Rakowitz has recreated the Lamassu, a winged bull and protective deity that stood at the entrance to Nergal Gate of Nineveh (near modern day Mosul) from c.700 BC, until it was destroyed by ISIS in 2015.
The Lamassu is made of 10,500 empty Iraqi date syrup cans, representative of a once-renowned industry decimated by the Iraq Wars.
Michael Rakowitz (b.1973)
10,500 Iraqi date syrup cans & metal frame
W 430 cm
Heather Phillipson’s vast physical and digital sculpture tops the Fourth Plinth with a giant swirl of whipped cream, a cherry, a fly and a drone that transmits a live feed of Trafalgar Square. THE END suggests both exuberance and unease, responding to Trafalgar Square as a site of celebration and protest, that is shared with other forms of life.
Heather Phillipson (b.1978)
Steel & polystyrene
H 940 cm
'Antelope' restages a photograph of Baptist preacher and pan-Africanist John Chilembwe and European missionary John Chorley as a sculpture. The original photograph was taken in 1914 and shows Cimambwe's defiance of colonial rule that forbade Africans from wearing hats in front of white people.
Samson Kambalu (b.1975)