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Taking on the plinth of darkness

19 August 2009

A living artwork in London reveals what it means to be British, says Peter Graystone

IN SYRIA, during the fifth century, Simeon Stylites climbed to the top of a pillar and lived there, contemplating God’s purposes, for 38 years. He originally retreated there to escape those who, having heard about the extreme austerity of his monastic life, sought him out for advice.

But his action had the opposite effect, and thousands visited. Some joined him in worship, some asked him to pray for them (he allowed visitors to climb a ladder during the afternoons), and others were sightseers who merely stood and stared.

I was reminded of St Simeon earlier this month when, by coincidence, two friends of mine, previously unknown to each other, found them­selves praying publicly in the middle of the night on a plinth in the heart of London. They had been successful in the ballot to be participants in Antony Gormley’s ever-changing artwork One and Other, considered by some to be his master­piece.

Members of the public present themselves as living, moving statues on the vacant plinth at the north-east corner of Trafalgar Square. The plinth is constantly occupied, day and night, for an hour at a time for 100 days.

Alison Wooding, a Church Army evangelist from Sheffield, chose to spend her time during the small hours of a Sunday morning in prayer. Hannah Gordon, a teacher from south London, followed her on to the plinth to do the same. Ms Wooding spoke the names of people who had asked her to intercede for them as she knelt in the dark. Ms Gordon stood with open hands as she prayed silently for the nation, facing south, east, west, and then north.

Hailed by both critics and public, One and Other has allowed us to explore what it means to be human, to be British, to be alive. And what are we? We are nine parts reserved and one part ex­hibi­tionist. We are admirable in every degree of ability and disability. We are determined to draw attention to the needs of a suffering world, but cannot quite resist the opportunity to draw at­tention to ourselves.

We are resolute through sun and rain. We have limitlessly creative imaginations. Our freedom of speech is unassailably precious to us. Mostly, we are ordinary, but that, in itself, is a wonder.

And we are spiritual. To prove it, we have placed on a pedestal a priest consecrating the eucharist; a poet entreating us to explore our souls; a bereaved father paying tribute to his child; a campaigner for human rights in central Africa; a humanist promoting his cause by leading the crowd in Michael Jackson’s Thriller dance; and all manner of people who, knowing they cannot change the world singlehandedly, nevertheless proclaim the possibility of joy.

Also, two young women who, like St Simeon, believe that to pray is to craft a space in which God can make an actual and tangible difference to the world.

As they prayed, the weekend revels in Trafalgar Square became perceptibly subdued, and people stood quietly watching them in the shadows. To both of them I say, bravo! You have taken on the plinth of darkness and triumphed. And the city has been blessed by what you have done.

To join Alison and Hannah in prayer, visit www.oneandother.co.uk. Click on Plinthers, then Week 4 Sunday. A film of their time on the plinth plays if you click on their names.

Peter Graystone works for Church Army, developing pioneering mission projects.

To join Alison and Hannah in prayer, visit www.oneandother.co.uk. Click on Plinthers, then Week 4 Sunday. A film of their time on the plinth plays if you click on their names.

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