The empty plinth

The empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square has provided some wonderful inspiration to artists to imagine what or who could stand there.  It cries out for someone, something to occupy it; it is, after all, so unusual to see an empty plinth.  But maybe it won’t be so lonely, so unusual a sight, perhaps we just need to move into a future of empty plinths.

Colston 2

The image of the figure of Edward Colston being cast ignominiously into the very harbour from which he was trading will become, I suspect, one of those iconic images and one of those iconic moments.  Many of us remember where we were when we heard that President Kennedy had been assassinated, many remember seeing Nelson Mandela walk free from Robben Island, many remember the first step taken on the moon, many remember watching the scenes from Berlin as the wall began to be torn down, many of us remember watching in horror as planes crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre and it fell.  All of these were life changing, iconic moments, seismic shifts in our world understanding, our personal consciousness.  Time will tell, but was the sight of Colston being dragged from his plinth one of those moments?

Stalin2

Last year I went for a city break in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria.  I can recommend it and in fact I am taking a pilgrimage from Southwark Cathedral there next year (all being well). Having looked at the Roman ruins and having done the churches and mosques we decided to get on a bus and head out to the Museum of Socialist Art.  The museum was opened in 2011 and its collection is formed in great part of a collection of statues that were removed from their plinths around the capital and the rest of the country and placed instead, as historical artifacts, and art of a particular style, in a parkland.  There are no plinths.

Stalin

We spent ages walking among these figures, no longer looking down on us from a great and lauded height, no longer oppressive but instead impressive works – there is a big difference.  Some were brutal in style but nowhere near as brutal as they must have been when they were glowering down from a great height onto the oppressed populace.

The prophet Micah writes

‘they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
   and their spears into pruning-hooks;’
(Micah 4.3)

Swords and spears though come in many shapes and sizes, and forms.  We have come to a realisation in this past week that statuary, public monuments can be weaponised, that they can be used as swords in the fights that we have as humanity and whilst this might become a distraction from the core message of #blacklivesmatter it is nevertheless worth thinking about.  Swords need to be beaten into ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks.  I was taken back to Sofia and those huge lumps of rock, that could have been broken down to create hardcore for building the new Bulgaria, to the statues that could have been melted down to be formed into something else.  But they weren’t, they were kept, but taken from their plinths.

Outside of the United Nations building in New York is a sculpture called ‘Let us beat swords into plowshares’ by Yevgeny Vuchetich.  It shows exactly what the prophet was speaking of.  A powerful image.

Schwerter_zu_Pflugscharen_-_Jewgeni_Wutschetitsch_-_Geschenk_der_Sowjetunion_an_die_UNO_-_1959

So more plinths are becoming empty.  In the Cathedral parish the statue of Thomas Guy, the founder of Guy’s Hospital is now being questioned and is boxed up in its position in the centre of the courtyard in which it has stood for so long.  I do not know what its fate will be, nor the fate of so many statues and sculptures that are the target of anger at the moment.

The Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, writes this

Don’t stop after beating the swords
into ploughshares, don’t stop! Go on beating
and make musical instruments out of them.
Whoever wants to make war again
will have to turn them into ploughshares first.

There are so many questions that we have to answer – how do we tell our story, how do we teach our history? How do we deal with the dark side of the past that doesn’t just hide it away? How do we live in our communities now and not make our past a weapon of continuing oppression? But the question I have been thinking about is whether plinths are of any use at all.  Should we be giving up on the idea that we place people on pedestals, at all.  OK, so it has been done since, well, forever.  But does that mean that we continue to do it?  Does any of us really deserve to be up there on the empty plinth?

In William Cowper’s poem that we sing as hymn, ‘O for a closer walk with God’, we have the verse

The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne,
And worship only thee.

There was one who was ‘lifted up’ that he might draw all people to himself.  The cross was a plinth, a pedestal like no other, and at the resurrection even that was empty.

God of peace, God of justice,
help me to understand the past
in the present
for the future.
Amen.

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