Why London’s ‘Fourth Plinth’ Is Worth a Visit

This plinth in Trafalgar Square stood empty for more than 100 years before becoming the site of a commissions series marked by humor and controversy in equal measure.

Katharina Fritsch’s Hahn/Cock sat on a space meant for a king. London Assembly

Built in 1841 as the base for a life-size statue of King William IV that never materialized (due to lack of funds), the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square in the heart of London remained empty until 1998. After a short series of three-dimensional artworks were placed on the plinth by the Royal Society of Arts, the U.K. government agreed to a rolling set of temporary commissions, and the granite block has been a staging post for work by some of the world’s most invigorating contemporary artists ever since. The commissions stay in place for two years and are chosen from a shortlist of proposals via a public vote and a panel of artists, journalists and curators (the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group) headed by the London Mayor, Sadiq Khan. In March, the Mayor announced the upcoming sculpture commissions—for 2026 and 2028—will be by Tschabalala Self and Andra Ursuţa, who will follow in the footsteps of the likes of Antony Gormley, Rachel Whiteread and David Shrigley.

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A participant in Antony Gormley’s Fourth Plinth work, One and Other. London Assembly

The U.K. has had an interesting relationship with monuments and statuary over the past few years. In Bristol in 2020, a crowd of Black Lives Matter protestors pulled down a bronze statue of Edward Colston and dumped it in the nearby harbor. Colston was an eighteenth-century merchant who made his fortune in part from slavery, and the statue’s dumping followed years of unease at its presence. With the debate about the 21st-century validity of public monuments the toppling took on a political hue. In 2021, industrial cladding was erected around a London statue of Winston Churchill after it was sprayed with a message accusing the ex-prime minister of racism. In November of last year, the Cenotaph war memorial in London’s Whitehall district was surrounded by protestors carrying banners that read “Have Some Respect For British Heroes” and “Leave Our Statues Alone.” In April of this year, the memorial was sprayed with Free Palestine messages. So it should come as no surprise that the public artwork set atop one of the world’s most visited spots, the Fourth Plinth, has come under scrutiny.

Since she died in 2022, there have been rumors that the plinth would be given over to a statue of Queen Elizabeth II. In fact, 2024 London mayoral candidate Susan Hall (representing the Tory party) vowed to end the Fourth Plinth commission series if she was elected, and a pressure group calling themselves The Royalists launched an online petition calling for a statue of the late queen to go on the plinth that gathered over fifty thousand signatures. But Susan Hall lost, with the Labour Party’s Sadiq Khan embarking on his third term as London Mayor and reiterating his support for the Fourth Plinth’s continuing role as a cultural conversation starter.

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Artists, too, have used the plinth to address political and social agendas. In 2010, the platform was given to Yinka Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, a scale model of HMS Victory, the flagship of Napoleon’s nineteenth-century vanquisher, Admiral Lord Nelson. The piece worked as a counterpoint to Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square’s centerpiece monument to the admiral (completed in 1843), reminding passing crowds of the UK’s colonial past. Shonibare was the first Black artist to have their work commissioned for the plinth. In 2013, Katharina Fritsch installed her Hahn/Cock, a 15-meter-tall blue rooster that the artist said was a commentary on the masculine nature of Trafalgar Square’s equestrian statues and the Nelson monument.

A giant ship in a bottle atop a plinth
Yinka Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle. London Assembly

Samson Kambalu’s Antelope has been the plinth’s incumbent since September 2022. The sculpture restages a 1914 photograph of preacher and pan-Africanist activist John Chilembwe and missionary John Chorley. Chilembwe wears a trilby, defying the colonial rule that banned Africans from wearing hats in front of white colonizers. In 1915 Chilembwe was killed after leading an uprising against colonial rule. Chorley was a supporter of Chilembwe and campaigned to end slavery in Malawi, Kambalu’s country of birth.

A man wearing a hat stands in front of a plinth topped by two statues also wearing hats
Samson Kambalu with Antelope. James O Jenkins

Other works have provoked thoughts from different angles. Antelope took over from Heather Phillipson’s THE END, a giant swirl of cream with a cherry, a fly and a drone on top unveiled mid-COVID in 2020. David Shrigley’s hand with an elongated thumbs-up from 2016, Really Good, was recently sold to Australia’s National Gallery of Victoria for a purported $750,000. When sculptor Antony Gormley’s One and Other won the commission in 2009, he passed the plinth over to the general public. Over one hundred days, for twenty-four hours a day, 2,400 people were hoisted onto the plinth, one after another, to spend an hour doing whatever they wanted (as long as it was legal). People ironed their laundry, sang songs, waved copies of their CVs, gave speeches, dressed up as animals (or Buzz Lightyear, in one case) and promoted charities for their time on the plinth. For The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist in 2018, Michael Rakowitz used one thousand empty date syrup cans to recreate one of the ancient stone carvings destroyed by ISIS in Northern Iraq. Chosen artists are given $38,000 to complete the work, along with installation and fabrication costs (usually around $175,000), from the public purse and by private donations.

Arriving in 2026, American artist Tschabalala Self’s Lady In Blue will depict a Black metropolitan everywoman rendered in bronze and Lapis Lazuli and striding through space. Up next after Kambalu’s Antelope, though, is Improntas (Imprints) by Mexican artist Teresa Margolles. In place starting September this year, the work will be built using plaster casts of the faces of 850 people. And, rather than sitting on top of the plinth, the casts will be attached to its sides, mirroring the racks of skulls from sacrificial victims and war prisoners built by past Mexican civilizations. The people Margolles has chosen to cast are all from the international transgender community and many are sex workers.

A green slime sculpture atop a plinth
Andra Ursuta’s Fourth Plinth work will debut in 2028. James O Jenkins

Following Tschabalala Self’s piece, Romanian-born, New York-based artist Andra Ursuţa’s Untitled for 2028 feels especially haunting. Created using a slime-green, mostly transparent resin, the sculpture is a cast of an invisible figure on horseback. And, although the artist has yet to explicitly say so, the work will look very much like the ghost of the fourth plinth’s intended original subject from 1841, King William IV.

Why London’s ‘Fourth Plinth’ Is Worth a Visit