The Fourth Plinth: raising the issue of disability


Charles Josefson explores the politics behind the exhibition of Mark Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnant in Trafalgar Square between 2005 and 2007, reflecting on how it impacted the public perception of disability.

Marc Quinn Alison Lapper Pregnant

Marc Quinn Alison Lapper Pregnant. Photography Gaellery via Flickr used under Creative Commons licence (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Surrounded by pigeons and knots of tourists, who never tire of taking photos by the fountains or clambering up on to the backs of Landseer’s bronze lions, the Fourth Plinth stands in the north-west corner of Trafalgar Square. It has hosted many contemporary sculptures over the course of the past two decades. The Fourth Plinth project has brought attention to the issue of disability on more than one occasion. The first takes us back to 2005, when a work by Marc Quinn proved a focus for a national debate about disability.

Of the sundry works that have so far been commissioned for the Fourth Plinth, the one that has far and away garnered the most column inches and generated the most debate and hullabaloo was a fifteen-ton sculpture by the YBA (Young British Artist) Marc Quinn. It was called Allison Lapper Pregnant. Installed in 2005, it remained on display until 2007.

A self-assured portrait of his disabled friend Allison Lapper, shown eight-and-a-half months pregnant, Quinn’s monumental nude was carved from a single, twelve-foot block of Carrara marble.

Historically, marble has been reserved for the depiction of heroes, gods, and for important public monuments: for Praxiteles’ Aphrodite of Knidos, the Column of Trajan, the David of Michelangelo or the statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial. Thus, Quinn thought it fitting to use marble to communicate his modern ideal of heroism. He considered the peculiarity that we automatically admire the Venus de Milo as being beautiful with her lost limbs, and yet we oftentimes neglect to see the beauty of disabled people.

With his Fourth Plinth commission, Quinn brought disability to the forefront of the public consciousness. His marble had become a symbol. A ginormous forty-three-foot-high inflatable version of Alison Lapper Pregnant took centre stage, as an icon of bodily difference, during the opening ceremony of the London Paralympic Games in 2012 — which were ground-breakingly successful.

Jenny Sealey, the Games’ artistic co-director, told the Guardian: “I want people to see a great show and come out saying: ‘Bloody hell, I never knew there were so many disabled people.’ This is our chance not to be hidden anymore.”

And then, in 2013, another giant inflatable Allison Lapper Pregnant appeared during the 55th La Biennale of Venice. With her back to the gleaming, grand Renaissance facade of a Palladian church, she looked out from her piazza on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore across the lagoon.

Using the technique of holding a paintbrush between her teeth, Lapper has become an acclaimed artist in her own right. Aged twenty-six, Lapper graduated in 1993 with a first-class honours degree in fine art from the University of Brighton.

This paved the way for her to work full-time as an artist for the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists’ Association. Her work has appeared on greetings cards sold in over 70 countries. Using photography, digital imaging, and painting, she has exhibited work in a number of group shows and solo exhibitions including the Royal Festival Hall, the Barbican Centre and The Hayward Gallery in London.  She featured in a BBC programme called Child of Our Time, received an MBE in 2003 for services to art and wrote an autobiography called My Life in My Hands in 2005.

In 2014, Lapper received an honorary doctorate from Brighton University, and was hailed as a “Titan of the human spirit”. Remaining stalwartly down-to-earth, she ranks her success as a single mother as her greatest achievement. Her son Parys, her “greatest piece of art work and creation”, attended the degree ceremony.

Alison Lapper Pregnant at Venice Biennale

Alison Lapper Pregnant at the Venice Biennale. Photograph: G. Sighele via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license (CC-BY-2.0)

Marc Quinn told Culture24 he saw Alison Lapper as “a new model of feminine heroism”, an accompaniment to the statue of Boudicca near Westminster Bridge and Lord Nelson atop his column: a national hero who lost the sight in his right eye at the siege of Calvi, and then his right arm leading an ill-fated assault of Santa Cruz. While “Nelson conquered the outside world”, Quinn felt Lapper represented disabled people who must “conquer their own circumstances and the prejudices of others”.

Some judged Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnant excellent; others recoiled. Quinn’s controversial work could not be ignored. Those who would never ordinarily choose to attend a contemporary art exhibition were now confronted head on.

Far more important than the critics’ disagreements over the aesthetic value of Quinn’s work, were the ways in which its looming marmoreal presence at the heart of the capital encouraged each passer-by to ponder disability.

The sculpture poses difficult questions which are just as relevant to someone with a developmental impairment as to someone who has a physical one. Do we treat disabled people equitably and compassionately? Or do we too often close our eyes to disability? Writing in the Independent newspaper, Deborah Orr challenged: “People love the statue, but would they coo at the image if it was on their scan?”

Quinn told the BBC’s Hardtalk: “It’s a spectrum for people’s prejudices, that sculpture. And also, a lot of disabled rights groups told me it did more for disabled rights than anything else in this country for a long time. Because it really brought it to the front of the news agenda and Alison became really famous, and the whole thing did a lot of social good, which wasn’t actually my intention – but is brilliant.”

Marc Quinn believes his sculpture did a lot of social good. But did it really? Quinn is something of a provocateur. He pursues a reaction. But did his work create more heat, than light? There is the problem of a non-disabled artist making work which explores experiences which they cannot understand first-hand.

Personally, I have no problem with a non-disabled person depicting a disabled person. I think art should allow us to imaginatively put ourselves in other’s shoes. But this should be done sensitively. And not become a substitute limiting disabled artists’ opportunities for self-expression.

There is a paradox, that after the sculpture was packed away, Quinn’s career hit the heights of commercial success while Lapper’s artistic career did not benefit to the same degree from the promotion. She has not received a major public commission. Does this make it an unsuccessful sculpture? Or is it simply that it takes many strikes to break a wall of prejudice?

The sculpture could be read as an accidental and unfortunate metaphor. The able-bodied receive acclaim, while the disabled continue to be marginalised. If this prestigious project faithfully sought to include the disabled experience, why was Lapper the muse and not the commissioned artist? Why was this not a self-portrait? Or some other work from Lapper’s point of view?

Lapper has herself eloquently expressed reservations. Interviewed by The Independent, Lapper said: “I find it very hard to deal with being described as a heroine. I consider a hero to be someone who has climbed Everest. I am just living my life. I think what Marc has done is fantastic but it would also have been fantastic if it was a work of me by me that was going on that plinth. If the same work had been done by me and I wasn’t disabled, might it be my sculpture that won? Despite being 11 years out of art school, I haven’t broken into the art world. I have not yet sold one of my photographs showing me naked with my son to a private buyer.”

Is Lapper a heroine? Quinn thinks so. Lapper is unsure. Ultimately, it is a subjective judgement.

In another interview, Lapper told the Independent, “People say that I’m not a heroine — and I do not see what I do as particularly heroic — but there are a lot of unsung heroes and heroines in this country who go unrecognised. It is not just people who have climbed Everest or won a war that matter.”

This is an inclusive interpretation of the Quinn sculpture that personally appeals to me most. Disabled or not, we are each the hero of our own lives. We cannot all have epic achievements. But we each have our own struggle.

Could this statue be seen as an affirmation of the unsung hero? Those who live nobly but obscurely. We cannot each have a statue. But as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier represents all lost war dead, could Quinn’s sculpture be seen to represent all of our dignified, noble, unsung struggles?

Like Lapper, I do not think disability in itself makes anybody special. It is not heroic to be disabled. It is merely an accident of birth or circumstance. So, perhaps there is a problem with Quinn’s decision, more superficially, to celebrate Lapper’s ability to adapt to challenges, rather than create a work which delves deeper into why such challenges exist.

This alternative approach, largely formulated by disabled people, is called the social model for disability. Quinn, perhaps, leans too far toward the medical model of disability, which centres on modifying an individual, presuming any difficulties lie with an individual’s deviation from the “normal”. In contrast, the social model centres on the lack of accommodation of disabled people within the wider community.

Barriers to inclusion do not arise from impairment itself, but from societal prejudices, unhelpful stereotypes, and inadequate provision. Simply put, why must we change to meet the unsound expectations of wider society? Why cannot our society be changed, all environmental barriers removed, so that disabled people may fully participate? Quinn’s sculpture focuses on what Alison Lapper has done. Would it not have been better to create a work which explores what our society does, and how we may change it to be more inclusive of disability?

After the purple cloth had dropped on unveiling day, Lapper was asked what she made of the furore, and responded with characteristic perspicacity, wit and forthrightness, telling the BBC:

“I’ve explored these issues in my own work, through photography and installations, but I never would have been able to afford to do so in 15-ft high Italian marble, as Marc will be able to do with this sculpture. I love the fact that it has got the UK talking; that it gives disability a platform for debate. It’s a positive image of womanhood, even though it’s not going to appeal to those who wanted the Queen Mother up there”.