Some random thoughts about the use and importance of the plinth.
The plinth is ubiquitous. Galleries, public spaces, retail outlets all have objects stuck on plinths.
We accept these columns without out really considering them.
A plinth is defined as ‘ the support of a statue or a vase.’1
To reduce a plinth to its basic components: it is a three dimensional structure with, usually, three pairs of opposing rectangular sides, displayed standing on one of its horizontal faces.2
Clearly the dimensions of each pair of faces can vary so that we can have a short or tall plinth . Or a wide or thin plinth. While usually a plinth can have a rectangular cross-section , the cross-section can be circular or elliptical
These structures have varying names yet all fit within the physical description and provide support for objects (though not necessarily a statue or vase).
A very shallow but wide plinth is usually referred to as a dais , increase the height slightly and shrink the base and the dais becomes platform. As we shrink the base area and increase the height our plinth becomes a pedestal, Continue this change in relative dimensions and our pedestal becomes a column until eventually it reaches the dimensions and stature of Nelson’s column. The change in dimensions does not alter the purpose of the plinth , to support and display an object.
Beatrice Hoffman , in discussing the use of plinths in placing garden sculpture gives three reasons for their use: practical, framing, status.4 It is useful to consider these reasons independently although they are related and influence each other.
The practical use of a plinth is fairly obvious. A delicate object placed on a plinth is protected from knocks and upset by the physical bulk of the plinth. Outdoors the plinth raises the object above the surrounding ground protecting it from mud splashes and the possibility of being over grown by encroaching vegetation.
The discussion around the use of the frame in art is complex. Derrida gives some thought to the idea of the frame and seems finally to decide that it does not exist.5
We can say that, in 2-dimensional art, the frame defines the edges of the work. In traditional presentation all of the artists ideas are presented inside the frame. The frame also serves to draw attention to the work here drifting into the area of increased status.
Placing an object on a plinth puts a metaphorical frame around the work. The plinth tells the viewer that this is the object that you should be looking at . Like the frame the plinth separates the object from its surroundings.
The framing effect , together with the height of the plinth serve to give the object a status in the eye of the viewer.
The height of the plinth serves to dictate the angle at which the viewer sees the object. A small object can be lifted up to eye level making it easier to see. When the artist controls the height of the plinth then the artist has control over how we view the object.
A plinth is often used to raise an object above head height so that it is viewed from below. The height of the plinth gives importance to the object placed upon it. The correlation between height and status seems to be ingrained in our psyche. Everyday speech is full of phrases that accept this idea: “ he gets above himself”, “ the glass ceiling” , “ climbing the ladder of success”. Literature is full of examples. The Bible refers to God ( the ultimate status symbol) as being above and those below being in a lesser state.
The problem that arises when an object is placed at height , is that it can not be seen clearly. It may be only partially visible and being viewed from below will appear strangely distorted. The paradox arises is that the object is given great importance but is concealed from view. Thus the fact that the object is on the high plinth is what is important not the object itself.
and in it’s totality 7
A statue of Yuri Gargarin, while not taking the plinth to the heights of Nelson’s column illustrates this clearly, and has produced many complaints.8
Nelson’s Column also introduces us to a further consideration.
What is the plinth and what is the object?
In many cases, where the plinth clearly relates to the object placed upon it, that is its construction ( design , inscription ) has a clear relationship to the intention of the object, it becomes obvious that the object and the plinth together form the work.
It is clear from these thoughts that the plinth has an importance of its own. While we ignore it in our admiration of the object it displays , the choice of plinth has a direct it unacknowledged influence on how we view that object.
4 http://www.beatricehoffman.co.uk/about/sculptures-in-garden. She has a considerable discussion with illustrations
5Powell Tim, Derrida for Beginners, For Beginners LLC,USA, 1997