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Interview with Antony Gormley on the Fourth Plinth project: “Why not treat everybody as a hero?”

If he gets planning permission, Antony Gormley will transform Trafalgar Square into a space for the ordinary man and woman

Of all the artists working in Britain today, few have made their sculptural presence as strongly felt as Antony Gormley. His giant steel Angel of the North which looms beside the A1 in Gateshead has now become a symbol for the North East, while over on the western reaches of Merseyside, 100 of his cast-iron life-sized figures have found a permanent home on Crosby Beach. There’s a monumental Gormley Iron Man in Birmingham’s Victoria Square and his largest work to date, the 30-metre-high fragmented form of Quantum Cloud, hovers beside the Thames in London near the 02 arena. Like most of Gormley’s sculptures made over the past two decades, all of these are based on Gormley’s own body, but it is those of others that will comprise his latest and arguably most ambitious public sculpture to date. Planners permitting, it will be unveiled on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth on 6 July. One & Other involves 2,400 members of the public randomly selected from throughout the UK, each of whom is allowed to occupy the plinth for one hour only, doing whatever they choose in a parade of humanity which continues 24 hours a day over 100 days.

The Art Newspaper: Each individual who stands on the plinth can be viewed both directly from the square below and also on the internet via cameras trained on the plinth which will be broadcasting a live feed throughout the 100 days of the project. This technological element is proving very complicated to achieve, why are you so determined to make it happen?

Antony Gormley: The extension into cyberspace was always part of the project but in my own mind there has been a development in the balance between the participant’s experience of themselves as an isolated subject in a very public place and the spectacle: what this experience means for the people who are watching it. There’s this strange combination of isolation and then scrutiny, there’s no question that it is a bit like “Britain’s Got Talent” [a reality tv talent show] but it’s also like Tyburn [once the location for the hanging of London criminals]. It’s being in the stocks as well as being on the stage and to an extent this balance has changed as a result of the necessary expansion of the project into the public space that is the web.

TAN: Why is this expansion so important?

AG: Because it is a condition of now, it’s where we are. With the proliferation of advertising and traffic and crowd control you could say that there isn’t the same level of individual freedom as there was 100 years ago and that collective space within cities has been almost entirely privatised. So cyberspace is actually an area where personal self expression and the potential for unusual encounters is most likely to happen. If this piece…is trying to extend the long held democratic principle of freedom of speech and the right to self determination and self expression, then the plinth is a big soap box. Speaker’s Corner is a thing that we’ve inherited from the 19th century and it’s a great thing. It’s a very important acting out of the fundamental beliefs of a liberal democracy and I’m just trying to extend that now for today. The live streaming was absolutely part of [the project] from the very beginning and—it has to be said—it is the most expensive part of it.

TAN: Surely any participant’s individual experience is going to be altered by the knowledge that they are being viewed liveby a global audience?

AG: The real core of the project is what this [experience] is for the person up there and obviously there is a danger that the presence of this technology is going to interfere with the real time primal experience of being elevated eight metres above the ground and exposed to the elements and the gaze of the multitude. But I’m actually fairly confident that the experience of being there—the height, the place itself, this relocation so that you are looking high up into the windows of the National Gallery—and the fact that you’re in a very removed situation from which you have a rather unusual or unique view onto the world at large will be the dominant one. I’m still very interested in how people deal with that experience of being very alone but also very, very public.

TAN: The experience of the audience will also be very distinct: someone logging on in Taiwan will get a very different sense of the work to someone standing in Trafalgar Square.

AG: They are totally different experiences and the thing that intrigues me is that you could say that the most intimate connection will be [with someone logging on] at [great] distance. We will have three cameras [focused on the plinth] which are all remotely controllable with zoom and pan 360 degrees so we can look from the subject to the crowd on the square: we can look at their feet and look at their faces. Mike Figgis is making a parallel film and he has been very useful in thinking about what will make the most effective bridge between the individual on the plinth and someone seeing [the performance] through the very indirect means of a laser-fed signal that diminishes the image quality quite considerably.

TAN: You’ve called the plinth a soapbox—but isn’t it equally important that it is primarily a sculpture?

AG: I’ve opened the studio door and said, let’s see how the space of art can be used by a collective body, by everyone. I’m thinking of how do we make the space of art an open space where exchange is possible? I’m not saying that I have any answer, I’m just saying, can we use this possibility, this platform as a way of testing things out, but also maybe finding out things that we couldn’t know otherwise?

TAN: The fact that the participants are standing on a grand plinth in this historic location also gives their actions a very specific symbolic focus.

AG: It’s also testing the implications of a plinth. A plinth suggests that art has a built-in symbolic and heroic position in daily life and that anybody who aspires to be in bronze and to occupy a plinth is a great heroic person to be looked up to and so by implication we are all lower individuals. History in the past was about kings and queens and generals and battles and a history of contested territory but I think that is a very old idea and that Trafalgar Square itself represents a very old idea about nationality and national identity. I’m saying that every citizen is the potential repository of collective memory and that maybe battles are extremes and if we want to understand human history then the eye witness account of how somebody dealt with life rather than the problems of war might be more relevant. So I’m saying, why not treat everybody as a hero? Or forget about the hero and say, look, everyone is important, let’s just have a look and see what happens to the living body when it is transposed from the street to this place of idealisation? How do people react to that in terms of self representation—and how do they alter their behaviour—or not? The psychology between what somebody thinks they are, what they think they are doing, what they are actually doing and what people read through their actions—all of that is very intriguing.

TAN: In this respect One & Other seems to chime closely with Ecce Homo, Mark Wallinger’s Fourth Plinth sculpture of Christ. Your work also seems to be saying: “Behold the Man.”

AG: Absolutely. You could call my piece Ecce Homo if you wanted to be poncey…

TAN: Do you have planning permission for the plinth yet?

AG: No.

TAN: But you decided to go ahead with it anyway?

AG: We couldn’t apply until we had all the technical things sorted and these proved to be a huge, huge challenge. Getting a broadband signal without cable from the plinth to the world is a big deal. They wanted every last detail of what we were proposing and until we had sorted out all the digital broadcasting issues we couldn’t give them the details they needed, now we can.

TAN: So are you confident you will get it?

AG: I think it is very foolish to be too confident. Planners have their own duty of care, they are public servants—certainly the planners have it within their gift to cancel the project.

TAN: I know you’ve said you are going to put your name into the pot for random selection by computer for one of the 300 London places. What will you do if your number comes up?

AG: People often ask me this, but I think I wouldn’t know until I was up there.

TAN: You wouldn’t have a plan?

AG: Well I might, but I think probably it would be more sensible to go and to find out what it feels like to look at the world from this strange vantage point and maybe treat it as an abstraction, because that is what it is. It’s being taken out of your own life and being in the position where hopefully you can look at yourself as an-other. The title of the piece is really just trying to deal with that thing where each of us is “Me” to ourselves but perhaps through the plinth we could also become “Other” to ourselves…