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Monumental Madness - What Is It About Statues?

29/09/2017 14:12 BST | Updated 29/09/2017 14:12 BST

Is it just me or are we emotionally attached to monuments? Once they exist, it's virtually impossible to take them down. Recent debate about US confederate statues, Columbus in NYC, Admiral Nelson in London or Rhodes in Oxford shows how worked up we get about them. I am no stranger to the debate that public statues can generate. I've overseen the contemporary sculpture on Trafalgar Square's Fourth Plinth for the last decade and have recently chaired the Mayor's Suffrage Statue Commission responsible for putting the first woman in Parliament Square.

In the UK, the Victorians have a lot to answer for. They embarked on a full-blown statue spree, with monuments springing up in gardens, parks and squares across the country. Since the 1800s our attitudes, laws and institutions have evolved, we have seen glass ceilings crack, healthcare for all and the decriminalisation of homosexuality. While society may not always change at the pace we'd like, at least it does manage to change. Statues on the other hand speak of a moment in time. If aliens landed in London, what conclusions would they draw from our monuments? As things stand they'd conclude we are a nation of kings and generals, we've mastered asexual reproduction (there are no women) and our primary transport mode is the horse.

While our architecture is continually evolving, our statues remain frozen in time - a quirk of the public realm, a glitch in the matrix. Architecturally, London has a wonderful mix of history and modernity. St Paul's and the Tate Modern gaze at each other across the Millennium Bridge and even co-commission art together, such as Bill Viola's stunning video installation. We generally accept that our buildings should evolve to reflect the contemporary international city that London is, but for some reason we apply a different set of rules to statues. One consequence of this calcified part of the cityscape is that the statues 'disappear'. We walk past them every day without even noticing, like urban wallpaper, until once in a while something happens to wake us up.

We woke up last week. Millicent Fawcett who led the non-violent suffrage movement will stand among eleven men from Winston Churchill to Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square. It will be a double first - the first statue of a women and the first statue by a woman - Turner Prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing OBE. Appointing a contemporary artist is significant, too, because they are often seen as risky for public sculpture commissions, but Gillian Wearing gave us a brilliant thoughtful proposal with her trademark attention to detail. She will borrow Millicent's actual brooch from the Fawcett Society to cast into the jacket and combine ancient bronze casting with cutting edge techniques (the model was 3D printed at Pinewood Studios).

The day we got the green light for Fawcett, debate about which other women should be commemorated kicked off. The great thing about refreshing our public sculpture is it gets a conversation going about our values and the people who embody them. It serves as a platform for debate.

Debate is at the heart of the Fourth Plinth Commission, and the first sculpture I worked on was no exception. Among the war generals in Trafalgar Square, an eight-tonne marble sculpture of Alison Lapper, a disabled mother who had fought to keep her child, stood proud, naked and heavily pregnant. The artist Marc Quinn had created a monument to a 21st century kind of heroism. The debate it generated was immense, no one was on the fence - it was definitely a marmite thing. Public comments ranged from 'this is ugly and disgusting' to 'it's changed my life, as a disabled women it has given me the confidence to have a child'. I thought it was fantastic - people talking about beauty, power, human rights and heroism - all because of an artwork on a plinth. The Fourth Plinth artworks aren't permanent but they do show what's possible, how public sculpture can be alive and relevant to contemporary society.

Sadiq Khan describes our city as one of the most diverse, thrilling and fascinating places in the world. It is a great creative capital, full of world-renowned artists with no shortage of inspirational people worth celebrating. So, while I am not advocating for a Victorian style commissioning fest, I do think it's time we grasped the nettle and found a way for our monuments to reflect more stories we can relate to.