To Plinth, or not to Plinth?
A short survey of the plinth in art. Does the plinth make art?

Written by Cos Ahmet for new online culture journal: Bezalel 7, Israel

The plinth. Central to the artistic principle since the ancient Greeks portrayed their gods, above their daily lives. Tradition dictates that ‘sculpture’ is displayed upon a plinth, a device for placing objects into public view. The 20th century saw many artists question this principle, with sculptors in the 60’s and 70’s actively rejecting the plinth. Other artists mocked the plinth, and the type of art displayed upon them, questioning the function of the plinth and the apparent status of the art/object placed upon a plinth.

As my own practice journeys through a transitional period, moving into the realm of the sculptural, and the making of objects, so too are my thoughts on their future display and relevance. I have fallen victim to the “default setting” of this gallery prop. That ‘quick-fix’ solution, when an alternative is just not to hand, or haven’t paid enough dividends to find a better one. Yet, some artists seem to be drawn to them and galleries dish them out like sweets. How conditioned are we to this mundane device?

The plinth makes art, right? Or does it?

My initial thoughts surrounding this issue were informed by Mike Nelson’s ‘Again, more things (a table ruin), Whitechapel Gallery, London (2014). He curated an exhibition using the work from the V-A-C Collection in Moscow. Gathering a selection of figurative sculpture, spanning two millennia, Nelson presented them on a low structure resembling a wooden studio floor, the room itself becoming the artist’s studio, transported to a gallery. Nelson’s approach to this exhibition was from an intuitive perspective to the space. Avoiding the use of vitrines or even plinths, he presented something less prescribed. In an interview with Magnus Af Petersens (Chief Curator, Whitechapel Gallery), accompanying the exhibition, Nelson explains:

“ I thought it would be interesting to present works in a way to encourage the viewer to reassess what they were looking at. My immediate sense was to try to change the space, and change the function of the work within it – to show it as the stuff it actually is. Immediately, the sense of opening up the skylights might give it the romantic idea of a studio with a top light, and then bringing everything off the walls so that the works exist on the floor.”

The site-specific nature of the exhibition, in the guise of an artists studio signifies the space as an integral feature, the sculptures placed on one platform, rendering themselves all equal, made these objects less institutionalized and more honest. By placing them closer to the ground, encouraged viewers to engage with the objects, experiencing them in what Nelson calls a ‘levelling out’. His display draws reference to his own work ‘More Things (To the Memory of Honore Balzac) (2013) at Matt’s Gallery, London: where the objects were placed on one horizontal plane.

“It’s unifying or undermining a certain hierarchy. I think that the reference to Dieter Roth’s work ‘The Floor I (studio floor from Mosefellbaer, Iceland)’ (1973-92) and the idea to return it back to the horizontal – as it was before it came out of the studio – is a nice conceit in the whole circular structure; the showing of the work, the referring back to one’s own practice, and the referring back from which it came. And the leveling out; as you level out a floor, in practical building terminology, you also level out the work.”

It is an interesting play on the platform, disguised as a floor, but is still a functioning structure on which to display objects. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was a rejection of the plinth. I see it as a placement of objects on top of another. A platform, with a sense of the familiar attached. The image of the artists studio is after all not alien to me.

Minimalism rejected the plinth. It was around this time that the plinth disappeared for a while. With artists like Joseph Beuys and Robert Morris making the ground their stage. Minimalism, as the name suggests – is a visual art stripped back to the basic physical form. Key to this context is its placement within the gallery space. On the floor, propped against walls, adorning no additional gallery prop. Sculpture supported without a plinth meant it was drawn back to the realm of everyday, whereas, the plinth raised the ‘status’ of art upon it’s own pedestal. As Minimalists rejected the plinth, conceptual artists like Piero Manzoni made the plinth into a strikingly different form. Rather than reject, he manipulated the form in a particular way, which directly appropriated the plinth. ‘Magic Bases’ (1961) for example, is a series of wooden podiums with a set of footprints on their top surface, invited viewers to stand on the podiums rendering themselves as a ‘living sculpture’, suggesting or acquiring the status of an artwork.

The idea of what an object or sculpture consists of is challenged by Bruce McLean with his ‘Pose Works for Plinths’ (1971). Originally conceived as a performance at Situation Gallery, McLean’s poses are an ironic and humorous commentary on what he considered to be the pompous monumentality of Henry Moore’s large plinth-based sculptures. McLean was later photographed, repeating the poses to create three plinth works. In an interview with Jon Wood (Sculpture Journal) in 2008, McLean commented:

“I made a sculpture for the three plinths. So, the plinths were determining the sculpture, not the sculpture being the thing, which determines the plinths. The plinth modified my behaviour, rather than me modifying the plinth’s behaviour. It seemed to me that it was a critique on the plinth, of the idea that whatever you do, ends up on the plinth. I was also thinking about how at St. Martins we were taught that we couldn’t put sculpture on a plinth, rather it had to go on the floor. In a sense I was interested in bringing the plinth back, just to be perverse.”

Aside from Manzoni and McLean’s works both using the body as sculpture on the plinth, Helen Chadwick’s ‘Ego Geometria Sum’ (I am Geometry)’ (1983) plays with the body trapped within a plinth-like structure as sculpture. Consisting entirety of ten laminated plywood sculptures, their surfaces covered with photographic images, and ten accompanying photographs – ‘The Labours’ (1983). It charts the artist’s development from birth to the age of thirty through ten key stages of her life. These are embodied in ten geometric sculptures based on everyday objects of nostalgic significance from her past. In the photographs on the sculptures the artist’s body is often contorted into unnatural positions to fit onto the geometric structures. In ‘The Labours’, the awkward bulk of the geometric forms contrasts with the artist’s slender body grappling to support them. In the sculptures, Chadwick seems to have reversed the function of the plinth, and has made the plinth the ‘art’, a little bit like the frame housing an artwork – it becomes a window to another world. In the case of Ego Geometria Sum, the plinth-like structures have become portals to another world. An example is a rectangular column, ‘Statue’, bearing a life-size image of her standing body. She succeeds again in ‘The Labours’, by monumentalising the plinth like a trophy by holding it aloft, offering it to the very same gods I touched upon in my opening gambit.

Focusing back to the primary function of the plinth, The Fourth Plinth in the north west corner of London’s Trafalgar Square remained empty between 1841 and 1999. Now, however, it is a platform for regular temporary commissions. British artist Antony Gormley’s work, ‘One & Other’ (2009) graced The Fourth Plinth in a similar fashion to Manzoni’s ‘Magic Bases’. Over a period of a 100 days, members of the public were elevated, each taking to the plinth for an hour using the platform according to their own aims. A subtle reference to those Ancient Greeks and their gods again? More recently, Gormley has played with the concept of the plinth in ‘Still Standing: A Contemporary Intervention in the Classical Collection’ (2011-12), at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. It marks the first time that a living artist has engaged with the classical galleries. Gormley analyses his installation which consisted of two parts: an intervention in the existing rooms whereby he removed classical sculptures from their plinths and an installation of his own iron blockwork sculptures, both rooms unified by a neutral, grey linoleum floor. Linking this exhibition to his major work One and Other (2009) on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, Gormley highlights the way both projects aim to encourage a new awareness of and interaction by the viewer with sculpture and its ‘frame of representation’. Gormley further explains how he reinforced the idea that the plinth detaches the subject from the mundane:

“ In my Fourth Plinth project, I raised up the everyday life, for a 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.”

Have we now somehow, come full circle in this short debate whether to ’plinth or not to plinth’? The referencing of artists, their practice and their work could go on and on. We have looked at objects displayed on a studio floor disguised as a plinth, to the Minimalists completely rejecting the plinth; the mocking of the plinth, turning the plinth inside out and finally, intervention with the plinth in order for these artists to address it’s function.

The plinth by contrast, now, looks like a lump of white-washed MDF, taking up valuable space and harbouring clutter. So, where does the object go to find recognition as a thing of status? I don’t believe there is a definitive answer, nor a conclusion. The art world is a vast and saturated arena, a place where the mundane plinth will, undoubtedly be faced with opposition by many other artists as we embrace the digital and virtual realities, and will continue to challenge, mock, exploit and even abandon this cumbersome apparatus, that isn’t quite ready to give up the ghost!