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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?

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The six proposed plinth monuments on show in the National Gallery are also strikingly different from Trafalgar's "gray statues." One proposal is a statue of a family of meerkats. Another is an enormous, sky-reflecting conclave of mirrors that the artist wants to look as if the sky itself has been "brought down to the ground." Perhaps the most ambitious proposal is sculptor Anthony Gormley's "One and Other," which would place safety nets around the plinth and have living, breathing members of the public atop it. Each person would stand on the plinth for an hour – 8,760 living monuments (kings and generals in their own right) over one year.

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Two of the proposals are antiwar: the French-leaning wind-powered installation, and "The Spoils of War" by Jeremy Deller, which is not an artwork but the remains of a car that was attacked in the war in Iraq.

For Mirza, the antiwar monuments, both reactions to the Iraq war, sum up the "vacuum of values" embodied in the fourth plinth. "The antiwar ideas misunderstand the point of a monument space. It's not supposed to be a one-off political point about current events – it is supposed to embody something more transcendent, a value we believe in for a long period of time." The absence of this "transcendent idea of Britishness" makes the plinth a confused space, she says.

Ekow Eshun has a different take. He's the artistic director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts on The Mall, the long, wide road that runs from Trafalgar Square to Buckingham Palace, and a member of the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group. But he can't tell me which of the six new proposals he prefers, he says, because "firstly I'm not allowed to, and secondly I haven't decided yet."

For Mr. Eshun, it's precisely the changing nature of the plinth that is exciting. "In the rest of the square, you have these strange dead colonels, these warlike monuments, and Britain is ready for something different," he says. "It is the role of artists to grapple with discord and to tackle the problems of the nation, and artists are now doing that very publicly on the plinth."

But the continual replacement of one abstract, sometimes obscure, monument with another points to a problem, says Mirza: "Britain has lots of celebrities who are well known and admired today, but we don't seem to have any heroes. A hero usually rises above the ordinary because he or she exemplifies some virtue that everyone can recognize. Who is that today? The fortunes of the fourth plinth suggest there isn't one."

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On a bench beneath the fourth plinth last week, Una Dowling, a graphic designer, ate her lunch, contemplating the tourists contemplating the "Hotel for the Birds."

"I think it should be empty again," she says. "It was more interesting then, almost poetic."

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