Trafalgar Square: Imperial Artefact16 minute read

The enduring status of Trafalgar Square as a widely noticed focal point for British culture in the imperial and post imperial eras is linked to its capacity to exert significant influence over contemporary politics in London on both a micro and macro scale. Trafalgar Square remains a space of contestation and division in contemporary London, utilised by numerous disparate actors for acts of cultural performance all seeking to have an effect on the microcosmic role Trafalgar Square plays in London’s politics. Schneer (1999) describes Trafalgar Square as the most striking of London’s many imperial symbols and monuments positioned at the very centre of the Imperial metropolis. Moreover Cherry (2006) rightly asserts that the British imperial past and its legacies remain embedded, intertwined in and imprinted on the Trafalgar Square of the present. Nonetheless it must be noted that within this historical context continuities and contrasts can be seen in contemporary cultural usage of the square compared to use in imperial London. The role Trafalgar Square plays as a focal point for British culture will first be analysed in greater depth. Subsequently the Fourth Plinth installation which represents one of the most notable new uses of Trafalgar Square will be used as a case study to describe both how British culture is changing and as an example of Trafalgar Square own contested polity. Finally the significance of Trafalgar Square’s role as a place of protest and contestation and its effect on contemporary politics in London will be discussed.

Trafalgar Square’s prominence as a definer of what the dominant British culture encompasses at a particular point in time has increased its use for cultural performances which look to both uphold and reinforce the dominant culture or to challenge it in some form. Mitchell (2000) argues that culture can be deployed in the modern world as a means of attempting to order and define others in the name of power. Mitchell’s ideas about the use of culture were reflected in the imperial use of Trafalgar Square for ceremonial processions such as the commemoration of naval victories in the Victorian era described by Cherry (2006). These processions were designed to invoke national pride and leave the British public in no doubt of the untouchable political power of the British Empire. The imperial cultural performances that utilised Trafalgar Square are a good example of Hobsbawn’s (1983) theory of invented traditions where examples of imperial architecture like Trafalgar Square were built to reflect narratives of national power. Contemporary cultural performances in Trafalgar Square show a legacy of this imperial formation of invented traditions which attempt to reinforce narratives of a single homogenous British culture. For example Anderson (2010) highlights how Trafalgar Square remains a focus for national festivities, for example celebrations following English wins in the Rugby World Cup and Cricket Ashes as well as following the awarding of the 2012 Olympic Games to London. These celebrations show continuity with imperial ideas of a dominant British culture where English superiority over other countries in predominantly white male sporting activities is used to invoke a display of pride and patriotism that upholds established British values and beliefs. Nonetheless it must be recognised that contemporary cultural performances that utilise the space of Trafalgar Square also reflect challenges to a dominant and imperialistic form of British culture. Trafalgar Square is regularly used for cultural performances that highlight the multicultural nature of modern British society. Sachdeva Mann (2014) points to the use of Trafalgar Square in Bollywood films demonstrating the relationship between a traditional symbol of British identity and the post-imperial Indian diaspora now established in Britain. Furthermore Anderson (2003) highlights the May Day demonstration of 1999 that followed three nail bombings targeting minority communities in London. The demonstration saw anti-racist protestors marching from Brixton and Brick Lane respectively along with gay and lesbian activists marching from the north uniting together in Trafalgar Square, which acted as focal point of resistance (Anderson, 2003). The examples from Sachdeva Mann (2014) and Anderson (2003) show how Trafalgar Square has been used to display alternative cultural forms that challenge traditional ideas of “britishness”. Despite Trafalgar Square visually appearing as an imposing imperial space, which aims to reflect the grandeur and power of the British state, its contemporary usage both reinforces and challenges imperialistic ideas of British culture. It is undoubtedly still used to exude a colonial era attitude of British superiority and tradition but at the same time it is also being exploited to highlight values of tolerance and respect for all communities that represent a key part of a contemporary understanding of British culture.

The installation of temporary works of art on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square has undoubtedly become a focal point for popular contestation over what is nationally significant in a contemporary understanding of British cultural identity. Schneer (1999) describes how Trafalgar Square is filled with three statues of British imperial generals including Sir Henry Havelock who led the crushing of the Indian mutiny. The unfilled and until recently unnoticed fourth plinth stands in contrast to the three other statues in the square which reinforce ideas of empire and British great power. Cherry (2006) rightly asserts how the statues have become stranded in a post-imperial period, which has begun to interrogate and rewrite the past from new and often oppositional perspectives. Cherry’s (2006) argument appears to efficiently summarise the motives behind many of the contemporary works of art that have been given the fourth plinth as a platform. A work entitled “Alison Lapper Pregnant” (Figure 1) by the artist Marc Quinn was installed on the fourth plinth in 2005. According to Sumartojo (2013) Quinn’s piece contrasted with the existing triumphant male statuary in the square and represented a noticeable injection of femininity into the square. Moreover Anderson (2010) asserts how Quinn’s work does not celebrate imperial war and conquest but instead celebrates a victory for a post-imperial Britain where femininity, maternity and difference are accepted and publically endorsed. Sumartojo (2013) argues that the work challenged the narratives of masculinity and imperial power represented by the other statues aligning with Cherry’s (2006) thesis about the oppositional perspectives that are now being played in contemporary cultural performances in Trafalgar Square. Antony Gormley’s project “One & Other” (Figure 2) occupied the fourth plinth for a hundred consecutive days in 2009 and consisted of 2400 people invited from all other Britain standing on the plinth for an hour (Sumartojo, 2013). The aim of the project was to achieve a portrait of British identity in living form contrasting with the cold and haunting presence of the other three statues. Sumartajo (2013) argues that the existing environment of Trafalgar Square can be characterised as hegemonic and exclusively representative of official narratives of British identity, within this context “One & Other served as a contrasting democratic and vernacular intervention. Miles (2011) presents an alternative comment of Gormley’s project arguing that the artist’s aim was achieved in that it presented a credible picture of the nation today. Nonetheless it displayed a nation of atomized individuals rather than a coherent group narrative, which could equate to a British nationalism (Miles, 2011). Miles (2011) questions whether in cotemporary world cities like London a homogenous cultural identity is still relevant arguing that it is in fact increasingly subordinate to a growing cosmopolitanism. However contemporary politics in London still only shows small traces of a coherent cosmopolitan identity that Miles (2011) makes reference to and the fact that the fourth plinth programme remains only a minor distraction to the wider dedication of Trafalgar Square to imperial symbols of British culture demonstrates this. Both “Alison Lapper Pregnant” and “One & Other” have at least to some extent dislocated Trafalgar Square from its imperial associations (Cherry, 2006). Sumartojo (2013) point to how Trafalgar Square with its national symbolism, popular history and central urban location has meant that fourth plinth artworks cannot avoid commenting on British national identity. However the lack of clarity over what British identity and culture actually encompasses has fuelled popular commentary and contestation of the fourth plinth artworks.

The fourth plinth programme, which has adapted the contemporary cultural usage of Trafalgar Square, has been accompanied by a highly contested micro-politics with different actors and groups fighting for influence. Cherry (2006) highlights the massive public interest and debate surrounding the selection of cultural works to be placed on the fourth plinth. However according to Sumartojo (2013) there was a lack of public involvement in choosing fourth plinth artworks and this is linked to the role of elites and politics in shaping national symbolism and culture. The selection process to decide on fourth plinth artwork was overseen by a small commissioning group composed of specialist advisers with no real public input. Sumartojo (2013) credibly demonstrates the dependent relationship between politics, power and cultural formation. Instead of allowing vernacular or democratic choice of 4th plinth subjects to emerge from below, the elites represented by the commissioning group were trying to impose a top down version of the nation (Sumartojo, 2013). Additionally many groups have initiated micro-political campaigns to lobby the commissioning group in order to secure the 4th plinth for an artwork they consider to best represent British cultural identity. A campaign group was set up to move a memorial statue of Air Chief Marshall Sir Keith Park (Figure 3) from its current location in Waterloo Place, St James to a permanent position on the 4th plinth. The Sir Keith Park Memorial Campaign claimed that the battle of Britain commander influential in preventing Britain falling victim to the Nazis deserved to have his statue removed from the obscurity of its current location to a position in Trafalgar Square where a wider audience could recognise his achievements (Sumartojo, 2013). Sumartojo (2013) argues that the campaign group felt that modern British identity was best represented by a figure symbolising an act of historical heroism, while opponents felt that the plinth was a valuable space that should continue to explore alternative forms of British identity and culture. The Keith Park campaign group were lobbying for a memorial that would have shown some continuity with the masculinity and military nature of the imperial memorials that permanently occupy Trafalgar Square. This contested polity of Trafalgar Square is again motivated by the need to ensure the space is used to accurately represent an understanding of a highly ambiguous British cultural identity. Similarly Williams (2010) writing in the British Medical Journal advocates for the return of a statue of Edward Jenner (Figure 4) in place for a short period of time in Trafalgar Square in the nineteenth century to be returned to a position on the fourth plinth. Williams (2010) argues that Jenner whose achievements in developing vaccinations contributed to freedom from disease comparable to the freedoms secured by the military generals on the three other plinths. Moreover a century from now Jenner’s legacy will be even stronger, whereas Nelson and the three other military leaders commemorated in the square may well have shrunk further from the memory of most (Williams, 2010). Williams (2010) chooses to justify Jenner’s appropriateness as a British cultural symbol and fourth plinth candidate by directly comparing his achievements to the hypothetical yardstick of achievement provided by the imperial generals already commemorated in the square. Finally Treble (2015) describes the current occupier of the fourth plinth a sculpture by the artist Hans Haacke called “Gift Horse” (Figure 5). Haacke appears to make a link between culture and the macro scale politics of London by constraining the horse’s front leg with a live ticker of the London Stock Exchange seemingly promoting a connection between power, capitalism and cultural history. Contemporary artworks that secure a temporary place on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square have come to be widely viewed as visual comments on British culture and identity. Consequently a highly contested micro-politics has emerged surrounding the power dynamics of the selection process as well as contestation over what artworks best represent contemporary British identity.

Attempts at a cultural regeneration of Trafalgar Square have revealed the power dynamics behind contemporary politics in London. Escobar (2014) describes the regeneration scheme implemented in Trafalgar Square by the Greater London Authority (GLA) following the election of Ken Livingstone as London Mayor in 2000. Livingstone and the GLA were motivated by a need to ensure Trafalgar Square represented a modern space at the heart of a “world city”, which could compete for tourism and investment on a global stage (Escobar, 2014). A consequence of the GLA’s plan was the eradication of the widespread presence of pigeons on Trafalgar Square, which were seen as inconvenient to the installation of a “continental café culture” in the square (Escobar, 2014). This decision led to widespread opposition and protest by campaign groups who claimed the pigeons represented an integral part of Trafalgar Square’s identity and culture (Escobar, 2014). Escobar (2014) argues that the displacement of the pigeons achieved too the displacement of an unappealing class of visitors to Trafalgar Square who were not likely to fit in with the GLA’s aesthetic vision of a “continental café culture”. It is clear that the look and feel of public spaces like Trafalgar Square reflects political decisions about what and who should be visible and what should not. The GLA through the medium of the regeneration programme sought to impose a form of cultural hegemony over the use of Trafalgar Square where only certain forms of cultural activity were considered acceptable. Those who defied these power dynamics were at risk of being excluded and criminalised.

Trafalgar Square has been utilised as a site of protest by numerous actors in both the imperial and post-imperial periods seeking to change the political status quo in London. Driver and Gilbert (2000) point to the paradox of Trafalgar Square in the imperial era built to symbolise imperial power but during times of political unrest it became a site of challenge and resistance. Trafalgar Square provided a very public and influential stage for anticolonial protests such as those of the Indian Freedom League in the decade before Indian Independence (Mace, 2005). Mace (2005) plausibly summarises why Trafalgar Square emerged as a site for popular protest arguing its status as an “Emblem of Empire” provided the rationale for its use by actors looking to challenge the nature of the imperial order. The position of Trafalgar Square situated at the geographical centre of London’s and more widely Britain’s political power continues in the contemporary present. Consequently public attention is often focused on and influenced by cultural performances that utilise Trafalgar Square to challenge established political policies and beliefs. Driver and Gilbert (1998) highlights how more recent demonstrations outside South Africa House during the apartheid era provided an example of how British imperial politics continues to haunt the landscape of London. Anderson (2010) suggests that Trafalgar Square represents a site of recurrent division between the public and politicians, standing for the cultural activities the public will employ to confront the ideas of politicians. The poll tax riots in 1990 again directly opposed the British state making Trafalgar Square temporarily a place that celebrated dissent, popular protest and anarchy (Mills et al, 1990). The poll tax riots of 1990 that utilised Trafalgar Square struck the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher at the heart of its power sending a powerful visual message of opposition that can be seen as a contributory factor in the later demise of Thatcher’s government. The poll tax riots demonstrate how the use of Trafalgar Square for politically motivated cultural protest can have a direct effect on the macro-politics of London. Furthermore Anderson (2003) analyses the anti- capitalist protests on May 1st 2001 drawing on an audible contrast pointing to how Trafalgar Square echoed not to the sound of a famous imperial victory but to the cries of demonstrators and the violence of political oppression. Anderson (2003) highlights a work by the graffiti artist Banksy (Figure 6) on the plinth of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, which reads, “designated riot area”. The work by Banksy represents a subtler and less chaotic form of protest but with the same message of political contestation. Banksy’s work can be understood as an example of “détournement” where the original work in this case Nelson’s Column has had a new antithetical meaning ascribed to it by the artist with the purpose of political comment. The work gives a sense of the old imperialistic culture represented by imperial symbols like Nelson’s column becoming worn out and less important in contemporary society. Trafalgar Square has an enduring status as a symbolic site for cultural protest and dispute, which helps to explain why protests that utilise its space have such a significant impact on both public and political discussion.

Trafalgar Square has attained an enduring status as a highly politicised space that is utilised by actors with differing motivations aiming to achieve effective cultural performance. Trafalgar Square’s visual context as an artefact of the British imperial era has been both upheld and challenged by its contemporary usage. Although it is still used as a focal point to channel imperialistic emotions of patriotism and superiority by hosting national celebrations and festivities, it is also increasingly being used to recognise beliefs in diversity and tolerance that are characteristic of contemporary British cultural identity. Moreover innovative expressions of contemporary British culture like the fourth plinth programme look to contrast and juxtapose with the traditional imperial symbols located within the square. The widely recognised discourse that Trafalgar Square operates as a focal point for British culture has led to the development of a micro-politics that accompanies decisions about the usage of the square, for example the fourth plinth selection process and the regeneration programme. The power dynamics of this micro-politics have been widely commented on and critiqued in the academic debate. Simultaneously Trafalgar Square for temporary periods has become a highly relevant and consequential site for protest and contention that attempts to change the macro-political status quo in London and Britain as a whole.


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