Here’s a short story I wrote on 09-07-09 in response to the flak and flaming I received a day or so before, having tweet-questioned the performance of one of Anthony Gormley’s Trafalgar Square Fourth Plinth (a.k.a. One & Other) participants. Some of the most successful Plinth occupants simply went “to be”, however, this individual, a puppeteer, was very much attempting an act.
The act was obnoxious, due to a terrible script, but the delivery was equally awful. A fellow tweeter and writer also thought so. That person was @FionaJMackenzie who proved to be both a valued ally, taking some of the flak herself, and a good social-media friend.
I had known since February 2011 that Fiona was ill, even knew it was from cancer, but was shocked and saddened to be told that she had died last week. I am still reeling. Looking down Fiona’s Twitter timeline is painfully poignant, but also a testament to her humorous and self-effacing demeanor.
Knowing that Fiona was a gentle and kind soul, but also that she had a wicked sense of humour, I think she would have appreciated the following piece, despite its strong language. Although she is not explicitly in it, (‘Thin skins’ was her comment), the story is a fairly accurate account of what occurred, and the basis for quite a bit of shared laughter. Only the names of the guilty have been changed.
Dedicated to the memory of Fiona J Mackenzie
“I can see his lips move”, said the disappointed child perched on her father’s shoulders. She and the few dozen others collected at the base of the plinth craned their necks back, seeking a glimpse of what was going on twenty feet above their heads.
“Just a bit!”, chipped in the elegantly-dressed grandmother within earshot to the girl’s left, now quite frustrated by the spectacle.
“Aaah, but which lips? Eh? Eh? Eh?”, wisecracked the businessman to her left, gently swaying in the post-lunchtime pint breeze.
The collected crowd were watching the latest incumbent of the plinth in Trafalgar Square. Anthony Gormley had come up with the genius, and rather risky, idea to put the general public on the fourth, unoccupied, plinth in Trafalgar Square. Gormley? He’s effectively the UK’s artist laureate, largely because the only other possibility, Hirst, had proven too supercilious and commercially-driven to engage with the public. Hirst’s ideas are not exactly two-a-penny, whereas Gormley’s come pre-packaged with public integration. ‘The Angel of the North’, ‘Another Place’, ‘Event Horizon’. In contrast to the likes of the BritArt set, Gormley is successful but maintains an accessibility and willingness to reach out. He is a public artist in every sense. In a beautiful twist, with the ‘One And Other’ exhibition on the plinth, he has made public art, out of the public.
But, even though it had been manufactured as art for all, it had very quickly become known, at least on social networks and micro-blogging formats like Facebook and Twitter, as “Big Brother for Guardian Readers”, because of its inherent artsy-highbrow nature.
“Ello Cheeky Chops! Give me a Cheeeeeeeeekyyyy”, squawked the latest piece of public art from the plinth above. “Those MPs filling out their expenses forms. What’s all that about? Have they no shame? I mean seriously do they need gardeners, chefs and anal bleachers?”. His oscillating, nasal whine did nothing for the delivery while arbitrarily waving a fluffy purple nondescript on the end of his arm.
“I wish he’d shut the fuck up and let the puppet have a word”, grimaced the irate businessman. “Did the puppet write his script?”, he added, a little too loud to not be heard at least three rows back.
“Anal bleaches? Did he say anal bleaches?” came a concerned hiss that carried over the upturned heads of the first few rows.
“I don’t think it matters, it’s so God-awful! Art has a lot to answer for.”, said the grandmother.
“And now, I’d like to …”, said the artist, but his performance drifted with the current of concentration.
“Oi! Look at this”. The young Goth couple skulked in the shadows of the neighbouring lion-laden plinth. She had nudged him in the ribs, directing his noncommittal attention to her iPhone. He laboriously bothered to turn his head. Like a mythical creature erupting slowly from a rocky cocoon he cast a static Marilyn-Manson-dramatic gaze over her Twitter screen, reading, “@JFDerry: currently showing on the #plinth: penis of the puppetry #oneandother”. “Cunt”, the he-Goth surmised.
“@WFSteve: the puppet sounds like @AlanCarr strapped to a car engine #oneandother”, said the next Tweet.
The artist took a moment to brief his notes, but the wind kept catching them, tearing them jerkily from his view. “Guess where I’m going at the end of the month”, he quizzed. “I’m going to see Miiiiichael Jackson at the O2 Arena”.
“He knows he should have edited that one out #oneandother #mj”, came the Tweet with all the critical immediacy of Twitter.
“This is worse than that polka guy in Good Morning Vietnam. Pleeeease make him stooooop”. The businessman had clearly had enough. His hands shielded his ears from any more onslaught. His bent-double posture took him a merciful torso-distance further from the source. Staggering into his neighbours took him marginally further. “Oh God. Dear snipers. If you can get a clean shot, please, please take it”, he hypothetically prayed.
“Clean shot, or just wing him. Don’t care, as long as it shuts him up”. Grandma had overheard.
The artist sensed some unrest in his audience but he couldn’t pinpoint the source. He heard mumblings, but no constructive criticism with which to tailor his performance. “I have no idea what you’re trying to say”, he offered.
“Most likely because you’re squawking so loudly”, Grandma spat out.
Her words and the general clamour were droned out by the whir, whir, whir of the helicopter that had suddenly appeared from behind the National Portrait Gallery to circle overhead. It was loud enough to be picked up on the live video web-feed. “@JFDerry Hoping it’s got shit-seeking missiles on board”. Tweet hate.
Twitter love: “@jbdrier: Stop being a dick, @JFDerry, I’d like to see how interesting you are up there”. “@meowme:: @JFDerry you iz dick. leave hm alone, hes got some guts! and hes fucking hilarious so.. :)”.
The artist obviously had friends out there.
Ping! Ping! Ping!
“@Scythe137: @JFDerry Fuck you twat, love to see how amazing you would be up there. You’re an outrage”. “jbdrier: For all those wondering, … @JFDerry … balls to go up there themselves…”. “DrBunjy: @JFDerry who gives a fuck about what you think hahaha”.
Ha ha, indeed.
“@hattijaquesex: @JFDerry is a cunt”. “DonisaFuckinShambles: @JFDerry If its offending your eyes/ears so much just dont watch it. dont be such complete and utter cunt about it”.
A trend was emerging. Criticism of this particular plinthian appeared to be riling the young set. What a sensitive lot they seemed to be. “@JFDerry: I seem to be taking some flak off the young set. must have thin skins.”
“@jerzycoke: we haven’t got thin skins, we just resent people insulting our friend when he has the bravado to expose himself in such a way!”. “Drbunjy: @JFDerry its not that we have thin skins, its more that for some reason you think you have some sort of worthy opinion on a friend of ours”. “@jbdrier: @JFDerry We just know opinionated cocks when we see them”. “@JFDerry, as much as I’d like to puke on you, it looks like somebody already did. Stop being absolute dickhead. TA.”.
‘Thin skins’ clearly not the answer then. Whatever was proving vexatious to youthful sensibilities, at least they were being polite about it. And notably, beyond all stereotypical expectation, they were motivated. How long have teenagers been accused of disinterest? Put a guy with a puppet on a plinth and suddenly the blood boils, suddenly the youth have a cause to get fucking infuriated about. It was Vietnam all over again. Well, almost. But they did have a voice. A squeeky, nasaly, whinely-winging voice.
Out of nowhere, Charles Saatchi, Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin wandered past, on their way back from doing lunch. They are instantly recognised and the crowd quickly peal away leaving the unknown performer on the plinth in favour of the fame trail.
“Hey Britain!”, the performer cries, “where are you going? Don’t follow them just ‘cos their famous. Give me a Cheeeeeeeeekyyyy”. But not a single sole turned round. They were too enraptured to hear the pleas from the plinth. Tripping and skipping they ran merrily after the wonderful triptych on display before them, flowing as one they rounded Nelson’s Column and disappeared from view. They were lost to the intoxicating lure of celebrity.
“Now, that’s art”, said the puppet.