Britons let their guard down, atop a 30-foot high pedestal

In most countries, stranding someone on a narrow platform 30 feet off the ground, exposed to the elements, probably would constitute a form of torture.

But in Britain, it's art.

And thousands of people are vying for a chance to be part of it. Their goal: an hour of fleeting glory atop a patch of prime real estate, an empty pedestal in London's Trafalgar Square, alongside such illustrious neighbors as Adm. Horatio Nelson on his famous column, King George IV on horseback and the inevitable clumps of tourists below.

Since the art project kicked off last month, hundreds of lucky winners have had their 60 minutes in the sun -- or, this being England, the wind and rain -- during which they are free to do whatever they want on top of the plinth, as long as it's legal.

One man became Britain's mood ring, asking people to call his cellphone to tell him how they were feeling at the moment, which he then transcribed onto colored poster board. An 84-year-old woman flashed semaphores, braving the damp at 3 a.m. to telegraph messages such as, "It was my birthday last Thursday." A young woman held a sign proclaiming "Introverts are people too," then sat down, barefoot and silent, to read a book.

"Rachael from London" brought cleaning supplies and scrubbed the platform to a pretty shine. "When all those men -- George IV, Henry Havelock, Sir Charles Napier -- were out doing important things, surely there was a woman at home, doing the cleaning," she said.

The project, titled "One & Other," is the brainchild of Antony Gormley, one of Britain's best-known artists. By putting ordinary, living people on the plinth, Gormley wants to push the bounds of sculpture and to offer a postmodern counterpoint to the square's statues of long-dead heroes of empire, the sort of martial he-men for whom "Pomp and Circumstance" could've been a personal theme song.

"This is kind of a slice of life. It's a sample of 'now,' " Gormley said of his 100-day, round-the-clock experiment, also known as "Fourth Plinth." "This is an existential project, looking at the way things are."

By the time the project wraps up Oct. 14, there will have been 2,400 "plinthers," as the participants have been dubbed, each allotted an hour in the spotlight at any time of day or night. They are hoisted by cherry-picker onto the pedestal, which is surrounded by netting to prevent a tumble onto the bone-breaking concrete below.

More than 30,000 people have applied for a slot; winners are chosen by computer, which selects only on the basis of geographical diversity. It makes no judgment about what the person plans to do up there.

Because of that, watching the plinthers can indeed seem like an anthropologist's dream, with the British Zeitgeist unspooling before your eyes, offering a peek into the collective consciousness: the desires, concerns, ideas and aspirations that hide there. (For non-anthropologists who can't make it to Trafalgar Square in person, the goings-on are broadcast by live streaming at www.oneandother.co.uk).

There's the predictable: people who use their hour to promote worthy causes, often to do with animals (again, this being England); buskers strumming their guitars or scratching out tunes on their violins; disgruntled activists railing against government policies.

But the wonderful and wacky have turned up, too: a swing-dance teacher who got the whole square sashaying; a P.E. teacher dressed as Buzz Lightyear who gave an aerobics lesson while the crowds below chanted, "You are art! You are art!"; a person decked out as a giant CCTV camera; and the "Balloonatic," sheathed in a skin-tight red bodysuit, with a giant red balloon that, a tad disturbingly, he climbed into and out of as part of his act.

Gormley drops in on the square as often as he can to keep an eye on the project, which has private and public sponsors, including the London municipal government.

"I'm just amazed," he said. "There was a moment where bubble machines were the main thing. Now I think we've evolved a bit. . . . I get the same level of despair and amusement and inspiration from this sort of parade of human variety as anyone else."

Conservative journalist Kelvin MacKenzie was rather less charitable.

"There's a lot of weirdos out there, and most of them seem to be on that plinth," he observed on a TV show that airs snippets of each week's most interesting plinthers. MacKenzie is a former editor of the Sun, a tabloid notorious for its daily Page 3 feature of bare-breasted women.

A few weeks ago, plinther Eric Page caused a stir by becoming the project's first nude. The burly exhibitionist modeled a succession of outlandish "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" costumes, fishnet stockings and a sign declaring himself "The People's Plinthess" before wearing nothing at all, except an awful lot of hair. (Public nudity is not illegal here unless, in classic British fashion, it causes alarm or distress to others.)

Being so exposed was "quite exciting" but also made him feel "strangely vulnerable," Page told the TV show. "The policewoman kept shouting at me, 'Have you got any pants?' . . . And I could tell her, 'What're you going to do, darling, really.' "

MacKenzie was not amused either, and suggested that the naked Page was, uh, lacking a bit. Clive Anderson, the show's host, was more sympathetic.

"It's very difficult when you're next to Nelson's Column," he quipped.

Gormley is surprised, and dismayed, that there hasn't been more nudity.

"Maybe the British are more reticent. They haven't been helped, it has to be said, by the weather, which has been absolutely filthy," he said. "But I live in hope."

It's possible to criticize the project as being not very British at all, despite its creator's aims. This is, after all, a nation of reserved people who -- at least while sober -- would generally rather swallow nails than make a public spectacle of themselves.

But going out of character is precisely what appealed to 21-year-old Ben Tomkins, from Stoke-on-Trent.

"It was completely alien to me, the whole thing. I've not done art; I've not studied art," he said. But "they were looking for a portrait of normal Britain," so Tomkins, who considers himself an ordinary bloke, put in his name.

He decided his hour would be interactive, setting up an easel and launching into a game of Hangman with onlookers in the square.

The Oxford graduate hadn't counted on the paper flapping around in the wind, or the shirttails that kept riding up his cardigan, exposing the top of his underwear. He said "Sorry" a lot, in typically British fashion. He was extremely polite to the people who called him on his cellphone, whose number he posted on the easel.

"Hello?" he said to one caller, then paused. "I'm afraid I'm not Jesus Christ."

He added helpfully, "I know him," before shouting delightedly down to the crowd: "I've been mistaken for Jesus Christ!"

His subsequent attempt at charades was, admittedly, less than divine. ("Sorry.") All in all, though, Tomkins found the experience exhilarating.

"I didn't get any negative feedback. Even the people who texted and said, 'You were crap at charades,' were incredibly nice to me," Tomkins said. "Already I've started to think that people aren't so bad.

"Being in front of people isn't such a terrible thing."

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henry.chu@latimes.com

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