A statue of World War II codebreaker Alan Turing has been suggested be permanently installed on the empty Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square, a prestigious platform that has previously hosted commissioned temporary sculptures by contemporary artists like Marc Quinn, Yinka Shonibare, Katharina Fritsch, Hans Haacke, and David Shrigley, among others.
A monument to the late Turing was proposed by outgoing British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who described Turing as “probably the greatest war hero” and added that it would be the “greatest tribute” to someone who suffered from institutional homophobia in the British armed forces.
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Turing, a British mathematician, was a pioneer in the field of modern computing and his advancements are often credited with setting the foundations for what has since been dubbed “artificial intelligence.” He was one of the most influential codebreakers of his era and his cryptology provided breakthroughs that expedited the Allied victory during World War II.
But despite his wartime accomplishments, he was convicted under antiquated laws that criminalized homosexuality, and he was forced to accept chemical castration. (Homosexuality was not decriminalized in England until 1967.) Turing died on June 7, 1954, with a sullied reputation and his greatest innovations buried in classified documents.
Several London politicians voiced their support for Wallace’s proposal. Conservative MP Anthony Mangnall told the Evening Standard newspaper, “I absolutely support the Defence Secretary’s campaign to put up a statue of Dr Turing in Trafalgar Square, if that’s what he’s launching.”
London’s Fourth Plinth commission began as an initiative to find a permanent sculpture to occupy the stone pedestal that has sat empty since 1841. In 1998, the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) started commissioning popular artists to create temporary sculptures for the plinth, and in 2005, the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group was launched to oversee the process. The commission structure, however, has faced recent criticism from past participants.
This January Turner Prize–winning sculptor Rachel Whiteread called for an end to the commission given that so few works find a permanent home after the end of their time atop the plinth. Whiteread, whose sculpture Monument, an inverted resin recreation of the plinth, won the commission in 2001, told the Guardian that she has not been able to place the work in an institution. The Guardian reported that “roughly 75 percent of all past Fourth Plinth commissions are in storage, and that only one is on display in the UK.”
“There is still no permanence,” Whiteread told the Guardian. “It has been great to have had an exhibition space over however long, but I think it has done its time as a plinth. One of the most interesting things that could be done now is just to have it left empty.”