The Turner prize winner Rachel Whiteread has called for an end to the fourth plinth sculpture programme amid new evidence of the difficulty leading artists like her face in finding a permanent home for their work.
The Guardian has established that three-quarters of the former fourth plinth commissions are currently in storage, and only one is on display in the UK.
Whiteread’s own resin cast of the plinth has not been seen in public since appearing on the Trafalgar Square site in 2001. She said the programme needed a rethink.
“I think it has run out,” she told the Guardian, “there have been some really great projects and then there have been some that are not so great.”
The original intention of the programme was to find a permanent home for a contemporary monument on the vacant plinth. Whiteread said: “There is still no permanence. It has been great to have had an exhibition space over however long, but I think it has done its time as a plinth. One of the most interesting things that could be done now is just to have it left empty.”
She suggested that the 24-year history of the programme could be displayed on a board near the plinth, or on a phone app. She said: “People making these decisions need to have a long hard think, because the art world is now a very different place, and Trafalgar Square is now a very different setting.”
Whiteread has failed to find a home for her fourth plinth piece. “One moves on and just tries to be philosophical about these things. It’s very difficult in this country to make public sculpture and get it permanently sited, especially in a place like Trafalgar Square.”
In reference to her move away from monumental work, she added: “It’s why I make shy sculptures now – that’s the way to make these things happen and make them permanent.”
Other fourth plinth artists share Whiteread’s frustration. The Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz said of his 2018 work The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist: “I have no idea when it will be seen again. Having pieces sitting in storage is always a bummer.”
He described the fourth plinth programme as “magical” and “very rare”, but suggested more attention should be paid to what happens after works are taken down. He said: “There’s all of this labour and material that goes into work. It would not just be tragic, but also unethical, for something to then just be thrown away.”
David Shrigley says it would be a “great tragedy” to halt the programme. “I don’t think I’ll ever get to do anything that meant more to me,” he said in reference to the selection of Really Good, his 7 metre-high elongated bronze thumbs-up that was last seen on the plinth in 2018.
Shrigley was granted £130,000 by the London mayor’s office to make the work. It has since cost almost as much to store the work. “Given it’s been in storage for five years, it is probably approaching six figures,” he said. “Storing art is a burgeoning industry.”
Like Whiteread, Shrigley had to sell smaller versions of his fourth plinth work to make it financially viable. “Art work is there to be shown and for people to enjoy,” he said.
Shrigley has considered donating the work but does not want to burden an institution with the cost of transporting and displaying a sculpture that weighs several tonnes. And he added: “The context is half the work. So it’s really difficult to take something out of the context and put it somewhere else.” The high proportion of former fourth plinth pieces in storage was “not necessarily representative of a failure”, he said. “They all have a value, they are just difficult to position. In terms of the redundancy of civic art, the fourth plinth is a drop in the ocean.Having a conversation like this is probably is quite helpful. It might make people think again.”
In the early 2000s, after the first three sculptures had appeared, the public were due to vote on which should be chosen to be permanently sited on the vacant plinth. That idea was abandoned in favour of the current rolling two-year programme.
“It was a fuzzy mess from the original intention,” said Whiteread, whose Monument was one of those three pieces.
Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo was the first contemporary sculpture to feature on the plinth. He said that despite its high profile, the programme had not changed the appearance of public spaces. He said: “Many of our civic spaces are still Victorian in age and outlook, [an era that was] not one that admitted much doubt or room for the oppressed or disenfranchised.
“There obviously needs to be a debate about what we want from our civic spaces and art in the public realm. There has been very little commissioned work since the war to reflect the times we have lived through, and too many bronze relics of empire, anachronistic at best, remain on their plinths.”