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The Passion of Jesus is being performed in Trafalgar Square again on Good Friday this week, at 12 noon and 3.15 pm. It lasts about 90 minutes, so people from around London who want to be in their parishes for the Liturgy of the Passion at 3pm should have enough time to get home after the noon performance. See the website here for all the details.

I posted about this after the first performance two years ago, and then again last year. I’ll repeat a few lines here as a kind of Holy Week/Easter meditation:

Anyone who follows this blog will know that I particularly enjoy those moments of ‘liminality’ (being at the threshold), when two worlds meet or when two lives overlap; borderlands, bridges, piers. Three moments like this have stayed with me.

At the Last Supper scene, Jesus broke a huge loaf of bread; and as soon as the tables were cleared away a great flock of pigeons descended to fight over the crumbs. Trafalgar Square reasserted itself, and the historical play was brought right into the present moment.

Then, in the chaos of the walk to Calvary, with the actors and spectators already moving amongst each other, one of the soldiers seized on a man from the ‘audience’ and forced him to carry Christ’s Cross. An ordinary looking guy with a rucksack and a pair of white trainers. He was an obvious plant, but it worked. It pushed the story-telling over the threshold of the ‘stage’ and into the real world. Like that Woody Allen film when someone steps out of the screen into the cinema. (Or is it the other way round? Help please!)

And right at the end, after the Resurrection, Jesus stepped through the crowd in his white garments as the audience was applauding. He didn’t take a bow. He walked up towards the National Gallery, across the top of Leicester Square, and into the streets beyond. I followed him, while the post-production congratulations were taking place in the square behind us.

That image of Jesus turning the corner into Charing Cross Road is what made the whole play for me: the figure of Christ, walking into the madness of London; without the protection of a director, a cast, a script, an appreciative audience; fading into the blur of billboards and buses and taxis; an unknown man walking into the crowd…

And then I wrote these reflections last year:

One or two moments stood out for me this year. First, when Simon of Cyrene was pulled out of the crowd by the soldiers to carry Jesus’s cross (just like last year) his wife raced after him – I presume it was his wife, sitting beside him in the audience. Or maybe I just missed this last year.

She was terrified that her husband was being dragged into the violence and mayhem of the Jerusalem/London streets – which he was. She circled round the edge of the crowd, desperate to help her husband and spare him this ordeal, not knowing where it would end, terrified that he might be crucified himself if he arrived at the place of execution with the cross on his shoulders. It was a lovely touch.

It reminded me that Simon of Cyrene – and all the others involved – are not just ‘characters’ who exist in some kind of suspended biblical animation, they are people with relatives and friends and colleagues and neighbours. It made me think of the relatives of all those who have even been kidnapped, tortured, murdered and forgotten – those who perhaps live with the agony far longer than those who perpetuate the crime and even those who suffer it. The Gospel narrative is so much more than the people who are actually mentioned by name.

The second moment was unintentional. When Jesus first appeared after his resurrection, and spoke to Mary Magdalene, the audience started clapping! It was so not appropriate – it completely broke the dramatic spell – but at another level it was so beautiful, and so British! Jesus appears; the Son of God comes among us in all his glory; the Risen Saviour is in our midst. We’ve got to do something! We’d like to scream or weep or fall flat on our faces in worship and adoration. But we’re British, and we don’t do these things in public, and the only visible display of approval or mild emotion we are able to make around strangers is to clap, politely, as if we are applauding a boundary at Lord’s or a dull after-dinner speech. It was marvellous. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead – and we clapped!

[When the play had finished] and Jesus got to the top of the steps in front of the National Gallery, as Archbishop Vincent was saying thank you to the organisers, dozens of people crowded round Jesus – just happy to see him close up.

And what did they want? Photos! So there was Jesus, smiling for the cameras – holding a child who had been lifted up for him; then with his arms around some friends as they peered into the lens; then standing in the middle of a large group for the camera. He was happy and obliging; in no rush; with a huge grin on his face. Obviously enjoying the people, and enjoying their joy in meeting him.

At first I thought: the play is over, the spell is broken, and the actor is quite rightly taking his bow. But then I thought: No, this is still very real. If Jesus were walking through Trafalgar Square today, would we be taking photos? Of course we would! Or put it the other way round, if people had had cameras back then, ordinary people who loved him and were delighted to catch a glimpse of him, would Jesus have marched away with a frown on his face, telling them to take life more seriously and to let go of these worldly gadgets? I don’t think so. He was, above all, kind. He met people where they were. He loved the ordinary and sometimes stupid things that they loved – as long as they were without sin. He would have stopped for photos.

Seeing this actor smile for the cameras – a warm, genuine, affectionate smile – didn’t create any disjunction in my mind with the Jesus he had just been playing. Quite the opposite – it helped me realise something about the kindness and humanity of this Jesus, and made me wonder even more about what it would be like if he were to walk the streets today.

Do get to Trafalgar Square this Friday if you can.

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It’s the second year that the Wintershall team has staged the Passion of Jesus in Trafalgar Square on Good Friday. Last year I posted about how powerful it was to see this religious drama unfolding in the secular spaces of central London – the pigeons, the buses, Nelson’s Column towering above, Big Ben in the distance, and the narrative punctuated by the scream of police sirens every few minutes. This is exactly what Jerusalem must have been like in the madness of Holy Week two thousand years ago. Well, take out Nelson and the buses and Big Ben and the sirens…

The play was even better than last year. It wasn’t just the glorious weather – although that certainly helped; or the screen – which made a huge difference. It felt tighter, more focussed. I don’t know if the script had been changed, or if it was just because the staging area seemed more restricted, or because it was the second year.

One or two moments stood out for me. First, when Simon of Cyrene was pulled out of the crowd by the soldiers to carry Jesus’s cross (just like last year) his wife raced after him – I presume it was his wife, sitting beside him in the audience. Or maybe I just missed this last year.

She was terrified that her husband was being dragged into the violence and mayhem of the Jerusalem/London streets – which he was. She circled round the edge of the crowd, desperate to help her husband and spare him this ordeal, not knowing where it would end, terrified that he might be crucified himself if he arrived at the place of execution with the cross on his shoulders. It was a lovely touch.

It reminded me that Simon of Cyrene – and all the others involved – are not just ‘characters’ who exist in some kind of suspended biblical animation, they are people with relatives and friends and colleagues and neighbours. It made me think of the relatives of all those who have even been kidnapped, tortured, murdered and forgotten – those who perhaps live with the agony far longer than those who perpetuate the crime and even those who suffer it. The Gospel narrative is so much more than the people who are actually mentioned by name.

The second moment was unintentional. When Jesus first appeared after his resurrection, and spoke to Mary Magdalene, the audience started clapping! It was so not appropriate – it completely broke the dramatic spell – but at another level it was so beautiful, and so British! Jesus appears; the Son of God comes among us in all his glory; the Risen Saviour is in our midst. We’ve got to do something! We’d like to scream or weep or fall flat on our faces in worship and adoration. But we’re British, and we don’t do these things in public, and the only visible display of approval or mild emotion we are able to make around strangers is to clap, politely, as if we are applauding a boundary at Lord’s or a dull after-dinner speech. It was marvellous. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead – and we clapped!

Last year I wrote about Jesus’s exit at the end of the play:

And right at the end, after the Resurrection, Jesus stepped through the crowd in his white garments as the audience was applauding. He didn’t take a bow. He walked up towards the National Gallery, across the top of Leicester Square, and into the streets beyond. I followed him, while the post-production congratulations were taking place in the square behind us.

That image of Jesus turning the corner into Charing Cross Road is what made the whole play for me: the figure of Christ, walking into the madness of London; without the protection of a director, a cast, a script, an appreciative audience; fading into the blur of billboards and buses and taxis; an unknown man walking into the crowd…

This year, a similar thing happened, but because of the weather the crowd was thicker and in no mood to let Jesus go. When he got to the top of the steps in front of the National Gallery, as Archbishop Vincent was saying thank you to the organisers, dozens of people crowded round him – just happy to see him close up.

And what did they want? Photos! So there was Jesus, smiling for the cameras – holding a child who had been lifted up for him; then with his arms around some friends as they peered into the lens; then standing in the middle of a large group for the camera. He was happy and obliging; in no rush; with a huge grin on his face. Obviously enjoying the people, and enjoying their joy in meeting him.

At first I thought: the play is over, the spell is broken, and the actor is quite rightly taking his bow. But then I thought: No, this is still very real. If Jesus were walking through Trafalgar Square today, would we be taking photos? Of course we would! Or put it the other way round, if people had had cameras back then, ordinary people who loved him and were delighted to catch a glimpse of him, would Jesus have marched away with a frown on his face, telling them to take life more seriously and to let go of these worldly gadgets? I don’t think so. He was, above all, kind. He met people where they were. He loved the ordinary and sometimes stupid things that they loved – as long as they were without sin. He would have stopped for photos.

Seeing this actor smile for the cameras – a warm, genuine, affectionate smile – didn’t create any disjunction in my mind with the Jesus he had just been playing. Quite the opposite – it helped me realise something about the kindness and humanity of this Jesus, and made me wonder even more about what it would be like if he were to walk the streets today.

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Six entries have been shortlisted this week to be the next sculpture on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth – ‘probably the most important single public sculpture in Europe’ (Hew Locke).

Meerkats at the Fourth Plinth by Swamibu http://bighugelabs.com/onblack.php?id=2300966128

An older meerkat proposal by Tracey Emin

You can see a photo gallery with some critical comments here at Time Out, and some extra shots of the models with their artists here at the Guardian. And you can visit the models themselves at St Martin-in-the-Fields church crypt foyer from now until 31 October.

I like the blue cockerel for visual impact and fun; the mountainous map of Britain because I love maps and mountains (and I like the way it simply doesn’t fit on the plinth). But I’m persuaded by Adrian Searle that the rocking horse child should be the clear winner:

Elmgreen & Dragset‘s golden boy on a rocking horse is by far the best. Like Fritsch’s cockerel, but unlike Locke’s work, it avoids being kitsch. The simplified detail and expression feel just right. Leaning back and with one arm raised aloft, he’s more than a toy boy. This is the child as hero of the battles of his imagination.

There’s something poignant but unsentimental about the relationship the sculpture will have with all those sombre bronze generals on the other plinths.

Golden boys don’t always grow up to be heroes. They might end up cannon fodder or unemployed, or fighting only private wars against the world. It’s a rich sculpture, playful but also serious. This is the one.

But they might grow up to be heroes, or ruthless leaders. So this isn’t just about innocence and unknowing – it’s also about the quiet genesis of war and violence, from the playroom to the battlefield.

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I was in Trafalgar Square and got to see “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle”, the new fourth-plinth sculpture by Yinka Shonibare.

It’s what it says on the tin: an enormous scale model of Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory from the Battle of Trafalgar, inside a 5m long perspex bottle. Shonibare writes:

For me it’s a celebration of London’s immense ethnic wealth, giving expression to and honouring the many cultures and ethnicities that are still breathing precious wind into the sails of the United Kingdom.

It’s great fun! The only shame is that you can’t see the ship very well because of the height of the plinth, and because they have painted some fake sea on the bottom of the bottle that obscures the view even further.

It made me reflect on how certain objects don’t just represent particular moments in history, they actually change them. This is part of the theme of the wonderful Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects which I posted about a few weeks ago.

And it made me wonder about the boat that brought my Chinese grandparents from Hong Kong to the UK in the early 1930s. (They were from mainland Canton, but had to stay in Hong Kong for 18 months to wait for their visas.) What kind of ship was it? What was it called? Where is it now? It’s part of my family history, part of my own personal story. I wouldn’t be here to write this post without it.

These are Adrian Searle’s reflections on the work:

Nelson on his column looks distant and far away. Yinka Shonibare‘s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, which has fetched up on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, looks delicate and small in its clear plastic bottle, stopped by an oversized cork and sealed with wax. Less a sculpture than a symbol, it is almost kitsch, and mounted on a vaguely nautical wooden stand whose portholes are actually air vents, whose hidden whirring fans prevent the whole thing from steaming up with condensation – though I rather like the idea of the ship looming in a bottled fog. Shonibare’s work is the sort of thing one might come across in a coastal shopping mall, and it sits on the plinth as though on a mantelpiece. I suppose I oughtn’t to like it; but I do, very much. It brings out the little boy and the sailing pond admiral in me. Perhaps it appeals to a rather conservative sort of artistic taste, like Jeff Koons’s giant, flower-covered puppy, which stands outside the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao (and which has led locals to dub the museum “the doghouse”). But then I’m fond of the mutt too.

Shonibare’s Victory aims for seafaring accuracy, though those bright batik-print sails would have been unwise should Nelson have tried to hide from the enemy. Nor is Nelson recorded as having said: “Pimp my Victory.” But for all its seeming obviousness and disconcerting, almost camp, appeal, the latest fourth plinth commission does manage to celebrate both Nelson’s success at Trafalgar and the postcolonial multi-ethnic mix and mingle of Britain today. It is an ironical corrective to Rule Britannia patriotism, as is the artist’s insistence on using his MBE, which is printed on the wax seal alongside his name (the British-born Nigerian artist was awarded the title in 2004). But the thing about ships in bottles is that they’re not sailing anywhere. Perhaps this is a further symbol of Britain today: a message no one wants to read.

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I finally got to Trafalgar Square to see One & Other. The artist Antony Gormley has signed up 2,400 ‘ordinary people’ to occupy the Fourth Plinth for an hour each. You can see what is happening on their webcam in real time now.

Here is someone as an example:

One & Other by erase.

I saw a middle-aged man in a baseball cap throwing fluorescent plastic men into the crowds below. Each figure, about 2 inches tall, had a parachute. If he was lucky, he threw them over the safety net. Part of the fun, the tension, was not knowing if the daring plastic soldier would make it. And part of the ‘art of unintended consequences’ (or perhaps he had cunningly thought this through beforehand) was that the figures that didn’t make it down were stuck in the net, hanging there, like those films where paratroopers are off course and stuck in the trees. Each figure had to be unwrapped before it could be thrown. The guy looked noncholant, a bit bored; like a street vendor shelling his hot chestnuts. The greatest unspoken thrill of watching was wondering whether he would jump over the edge with his own parachute when the hour was up.

There was so much to enjoy and reflect on. The children below were having a ball; with a frisson of danger too, because the parachutists were landing on some steps – so you couldn’t lunge easily. And the sociologists could have had a field day. At first it was an image of innocent, playground fun. Then I realised the complications: their parents. They had the height advantage, so it became a contest between which parent was tallest or most desperate; they then passed the toy onto their child, who took it not as a personal victory but as a reward for having a pushy parent. Eventually, the parents got bored, and it was back to the children – genuine, devlish innocence.

The star of the show is the JCB crane/tractor/digger that swaps the participants over. It is a thing of beauty: that JCB yellow/orange, polished by the sponsors; the grace of a carefully designed machine; the awesome size of each tyre; the memories of Tonka-toys; and the performance itself – people in fluorescent jackets parting the crowd like circus artists going before an elephant.

There was a palpable sense of disappointment when the next person got up and the crowd realised she was going to do… nothing. Nothing but sit in a pink chair, take photos, write some notes, and wave to the crowd now and then – without any regal affectation. I went through a surprising range of emotions: frustration (why can’t you do something interesting?); anger (you have had weeks to think about this – and now it’s wasted); forgiveness (I guess you have every right to do what you like); to appreciation (wow – you are just there). And perhaps that’s the point, if there needs to be one: she is there; with enough self-confidence to just sit on the plinth and look at others, at us; to invert the artistic experience; a middle-aged woman in a green T-shirt and jeans looking at the artistic event of Trafalgar Square itself. The banality, the glory, the sheer fun of humanity itself – up there on the plinth, and down here in the crowd.

And the first person who ever stood on the plinth? Christ, in the form of Mark Wallinger’s sculpture Ecce homo in 1999. All the same questions about is it art and who is he and why is he there and what is he doing; only with the added poignancy that he stood for everyone. The only photo I can find is copyrighted – see it here.

 

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