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London wants to put Britishness on a pedestal

Will it be meerkats, a junk car, or a hero for Trafalgar Square's empty fourth plinth?

(Page 2 of 3)

Well, in Trafalgar Square there's a corner that is forever blank, forever confused – a gaping hole where England, or at least Englishness, ought to stand tall and proud, but doesn't.

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The empty fourth plinth has come to symbolize a British crisis of values and heroism.

Trafalgar Square was completed in 1845. Statues – of King George IV, and India-based British military men Sir Charles James Napier and Henry Havelock – were mounted on three plinths. The fourth was supposed to carry a statue of King William IV. But successive governments failed to fund it. As decades rolled by, there were heated debates about whether a new, different statue should be erected on the plinth. Who should it commemorate? Another military man? An inspiring politician? A royal?

Governments could never agree, and the statueless fourth plinth, standing out like an architectural sore thumb in a square stacked with statues, lions, and pillars, became an unwitting ad for the indecision about who best represents national British values, and what Britain is about.

In 1999, the Royal Society of Arts and the Greater London Authority set up the Fourth Plinth Project, commissioning a series of temporary sculptures to occupy the plinth. Most of them have been playful, or knowingly provocative.

In 2001, British sculptor, Rachel Whiteread, made an exact resin-based replica of the fourth plinth ... and placed it on top of the plinth. Everyone agreed that it was très witty and postmodern, but it also captured the identity crisis at the heart of the problem: in idolizing the plinth itself, Whiteread elevated its very emptiness, the very indecision that meant the stone block has stood uninhabited for 150 years, to the level of a public monument.

"The fact that the fourth plinth keeps changing contradicts the traditional idea of a 'monument,' which is supposed to have longevity," says Munira Mirza, author of "Culture Vultures: Is UK Arts Policy Damaging the Arts?"

Ms. Mirza believes that the turnover of temporary statues since 1999, and the consultation to find a new one now, "suggests that our society is uncomfortable with the idea of a permanent value that can last into the future. There is plenty of 'values discourse' around today, but these values seem transitory and only surface-deep."

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Outside the National Gallery, a handful of tourists wandered around the square, disappointed that the once-famous home to 35,000 rock pigeons seemed almost bird-free. But in an attempt to relieve the square of the tyranny of pigeon poo, London Mayor Ken Livingstone has banned the feeding of pigeons and even employed falcons to chase them away.

"I wanted a photo with the pigeons!" says Aidan Kelly from South Africa. Instead he got "Hotel for the Birds," the monument that will occupy the fourth plinth until the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group has decided which of six new proposed monuments to select. Made by the German-born artist Thomas Schutte, the "Hotel" is a colorful, plastic-and-metal minibuilding for pigeons – if there were any left. "I like it," says Mr. Kelly. "It's easier on the eye and the senses than the other gray statues around here."