The story of the Empty Plinth.

I was rather surprised to discover on attending the preview of the 2006 Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy that my sculpture which I had been informed had been accepted was nowhere to be seen. Eventually I found it, or rather didn’t: what I did find was the empty base, a plain slab of slate, displayed as exhibit 1201.

What apparently had happened was that they had become separated prior to selection and the selectors had judged the empty base a good enough sculpture in its own right to include in the show. I had asked them at the preview if they could simply correct it but they weren’t willing to, saying the judges’ opinion was more important than my intention for my own work.  The judges were famous artists in their own right, and admitting a mistake would clearly be bad for their market credibility.

After much thought and discussion I wrote to the papers about it, and it instantly became a worldwide story covered in press and TV and on the Internet, prompting great hilarity and much discussion of the state of the arts.  The reason wasn’t just that they made a mistake, but that they were unable to correct it.

The RA’s press office was immediately inundated, and soon they even issued a press release saying I had sent in the two parts separately, even though the submission records would prove otherwise.

We withdrew it from sale in the exhibition but left it on show, and as part of the coverage of the story The Times hosted an auction of the empty plinth, which would be accompanied by a collection of Media articles and renamed “Another day closer to Paradise” after the exhibition ended.  It was sold this way, and the missing sculpture, by then returned to me, was also sold.

Rather than being reason to blame the organisers I found it very amusing, partly because it says a lot about the state of the visual arts today, (the exhibition had anyway come in for a lot of criticism), and partly because in its new form the sculpture still holds beautifully to the idea I wanted to express.

My entry was a large laughing head, called “One Day Closer to Paradise”, and making it was a process of exploring and trying to describe sensations and attitudes that might be experienced in the pursuit of the possibly empty promise of paradise, ranging from delight to ridicule to horror, changing as you walk round it. So to have it suddenly absent, invisible, is entirely appropriate, as if the soul has achieved Ascension leaving behind the base, which was suitably cut from an old slate mortuary slab and has a single bone-shaped mounting device tied to it. In a way I like this new version, though I recognise that it is a chance collaboration with the selectors.

There is quite a public interest in the efforts of the Royal Academy to move with the times, as if the institution’s performance is a piece of visual art itself, with attention being paid to this error like the concentration necessary when you make a mistake in a drawing: it’s important to learn from it without prejudice. That an empty plinth makes it to the exhibition is the stuff of cartoons and is also a comment about the apparent vacuous nature of some contemporary art, and it clearly reflected badly on the organisers, but in a way it shouldn’t do: one could say that the art world itself is engaged in a cultural performance about the real world, and particularly these days the nature of social control, about devices that keeps us in thrall to commercialism.  This whole pantomime, a parody of real world activity, includes not just the art itself but its manipulation by collectors, auction houses, museums and financial concerns, and of course the Media and art world “experts”.  Some of these are obviously concerned to help create an honest picture of the human condition, and others unquestionably are more biased and intend an image of our supposed degeneracy. 

The arts are how we reveal ourselves to ourselves, one function of aesthetics being to hold our hand while we face what we’ve allowed ourselves to become.

The sculpture itself came out of a lifelong fascination with religions and their methods of indoctrination.

I wanted to make an image of a human attempt to aim for Paradise, partly because of the present day supposed Islamic motivation for terrorists: I drew virgins all over it like on a blackboard and erased them as part of the thought process of making the sculpture; and I wanted the image of the laughing head to range from hilarity to horror, which is why it was on a roller (the bone shaped thing on the base): viewed from different angles the expression changes.  Also I wanted to see what sort of responses one might get from addressing this subject.  It’s a direction for a lot of artists to try to subvert habits of fashionable taste and correctness, doing it in an aesthetic but kitschy manner (defining kitsch as what posh people wouldn’t be seen dead with, but relying on critics and art experts to entirely miss the point and promote anything controversial as Art whereupon the posh people buy it anyway).   As it turned out, this question was obscured by the events, nonetheless the dialogue that followed in the Press and on the Internet was extremely revealing for my underlying fascination, how the arts are involved in social influence.

The story became a worldwide phenomenon, but interestingly few asked why it could happen.

I’ve spent much of my working life as an artist trying to comprehend and define art, and I made as much as I could out of the mistake and the Royal Academy’s inability or refusal to remedy it. 

I publicised it in the way I did as a kind of interventionist performance work of my own, on the basis that it is the work of an artist to try to reveal the world as they see it:  I was seeing many people confused and depressed by the standard of the supposedly best art, and I was developing an understanding of why it is that way.  There’s an art form becoming acceptable these days of the Intervention: you interact with someone else’s creation, either satirically or to clarify, extend or update its significance.  I felt the Royal Academy’s creation of their traditional open-to-all Summer Exhibition is being subverted by market forces, that it is being used as a vehicle for a kind of social influence, and as an institution with a focus on scholarship about the arts it should be their concern to notice this.  My idea was to point out their blind-spot by means of an intervention that had enough wit and aesthetics to make it art.

And making an image of laughter and then having its disappearance causing such a huge roar of amusement is wonderful.   If art is what we do when we don’t understand the world, one cannot be surprised if one is surprised by what one sees.