What’s the point of the plinth?

Katharina Fritsch, Hahn/Cock, 2013, Trafalgar Square, London

Katharina Fritsch, Hahn/Cock, 2013, Trafalgar Square, London

Many times we experience art, it is upon a plinth or in a frame. If this isn’t the case, works are usually artfully (forgive the pun) positioned in a gallery whose white walls function much like a frame, telling us where to look and what to look at. Trafalgar Square’s even got four of them.

Yet what is the point of a plinth or a frame? What is the point of all that big white space which surrounds massive Ron Mueck sculptures, or those four sides of ornately carved, gilded oak wood?

Ron Mueck, Boy, 1999

Ron Mueck, Boy, 1999

rococo frame, gilded and ornante

Rococo style gilded frame

The theory of framing has a fascinating, multi-dimensional past. Looking back and across through cultures and historical eras, we can see that us humans don’t only frame art. We ‘frame’ theatre with a stage and a proscenium (the arch above the stage), and we might almost get away with saying that we frame food on a beautiful round floral Limoges porcelain plate. We outline our faces with curls and hats, and epic poems are surrounded by illustrated manuscripts.

Proscenium of the Academy of Music, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Proscenium of the Academy of Music, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Limoges plates, porcelain

Limoges plates, porcelain

Let’s take a moment to imagine what all these things would be like without their frames.

Food without a plate becomes a not-so-tempting mess. A poem without its illustrations could possibly be an ungraspable and mentally overwhelming Homeric saga. Theatre without a stage becomes inseparable from ‘real life’. That scary person locking eyes with you strangely on the tube could be theatre, playacting, or it could be a real threat.

And art? Art without its frame…

It seems, with art, perhaps even more so than with theatre and full English breakfasts, that we rely on the frame for the object of our focus to remain tantalising and appetising. In fact, a frame might be the difference between seeing something as a sumptuous meal, and seeing the same thing as a dingy waste product. As blue chip art, or an amateur’s insipid attempts at brushwork.

You know that tomato, on your plate but moments ago, which has now been chucked into the rubbish bin, and physically repulses you? You seemed pretty keen on munching it only minutes before.

Like breakfast and refuse, the difference between framed and unframed qualities might be a very important difference between art and not-art. The frame seems so necessary; as the very space within which we view the object, the frame, or lack thereof, is inherently part of visually experiencing a thickly-varnished oil portrait or a bronze nude sculpture.

The centrality of framing, or plinth-ing, if you prefer, can make some people feel uneasy. Decontextualising a piece of art is often used by critics as a means to assert its fallibility.

However, for many of us, the plate we are handed objects and ideas on is inseparable from our enjoyment of and comfort with those objects and idea.

Antony Gormley, One & Other, 2009, public art project, Trafalgar Square, London

Antony Gormley, One & Other, 2009, public art project, Trafalgar Square, London

By guest blogger, Yashka Moore

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