The Beauty of an Empty Plinth

Writing this at the beginning of 2022, I am conscious of the just-breaking UK news of the acquittal of four people charged with the willful toppling of, and damage to, a widely despised statue of eighteenth-century slave trader Edward Colston that had stood in Bristol city center since the end of the nineteenth century. Bristol, a city in the west of England, like so many other cities across the country and, indeed, across the world, held its own Black Lives Matter rally, on June 7, 2020. One of the extraordinary aspects of the 2020 protests against the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other victims was the spread and reach of the demonstrations. It is a given that the protests occurred throughout the United States, but the protests also assumed a decidedly transatlantic and international character, as cities like Bristol saw voices raised to protest racial injustice. It was in the aftermath of Bristol’s Black Lives Matter rally that the extraordinary event occurred in which Colston’s statue was summarily de- plinthed and then, for good measure, rolled and dragged a short distance through the center of the city and finally dumped over the quay to take its place among other detritus such as the shopping trolleys and broken bicycles that Britain’s city-center docks, rivers, and canals are frequently home to.

Protests against what many regarded as the deeply offensive and inappropriateness of the statue of a slave trader being erected in Bristol’s city center date back at least to the early twentieth century. Having lived in Bristol for just under three decades, I saw firsthand various campaigns to have the wretched statue removed (or, at the very least, its offensively worded plaque amended), though such initiatives, frustratingly, came to naught. It was in these contexts—a Black Lives Matter rally and local government inertia or intransigence—that a particularly animated, civic-minded, and visionary element of the multitude took it upon itself to tear down, with the aid of ropes, the statue of Colston. Now, some eighteen months later, it seems incredible that the statue remained in place for as long as it did. The inscription beneath the statue of Colston (who was venerated by some as a major philanthropic figure in Bristol’s history) read “ERECTED by CITIZENS of BRISTOL AS a MEMORIAL OF ONE OF THE MOST VIRTUOUS and WISE SONS of THEIR CITY. A.D. 1895.” It took the coordinated efforts of a number of people (including the four who would eventually be put on trial) to assert that there was nothing the least bit “virtuous” or “wise” about a man who earned his living as the beneficiary of, and an active participant in, the transatlantic slave trade.

In the aftermath of the toppling of Colston’s statue, the city’s mayor asserted that if something were to take up residence on the now-vacant plinth, it would be with the democratic say-so of the people of Bristol. The contemporary British artist Mark Quinn had wasted no time in constructing and erecting on the vacated plinth a statue of Black Lives Matter protestor Jen Reid, rendered in black resin. The speed with which Colston’s statue was retrieved from its watery grave was replicated by the speed with which Quinn’s statue of Reid was removed by the Bristol city council. But what the mayor’s supposedly reasoned assertions about democratic say-so had failed to recognize was that the statuary that adorns (or, alternatively, pollutes) our university campuses, our parks, and our city centers has never been erected by common consent. The statues are there because very small numbers of people, with financial means and undue influence, have seen to it that their will is enacted. In the case of Colston’s statue, the public might not have had anything to do with the effigy’s erecting, though it was a different manifestation of the public that rightly saw to it that the deeply offensive and problematic pedestaled figure was removed from public view.

The above extracts are from Eddie Chambers’ “The Beauty of an Empty Plinth” Art Journal, Summer 2022 81:2, 5-6