Matt Walters argues that the reason he won the top prize at the National Living Statue Championship 2018 is simple. “I was standing there and the judge said, ‘You look like a statue, mate.’”
Walters has been a living statue for over 30 years, a form of street performance requiring dedication to costume design, make-up, poise and authenticity. Hour upon hour of work goes into both their appearance and standing still without blinking come rain, shine, or people repeatedly poking you to see if you’re actually a statue.
Go to Covent Garden, Trafalgar Square or South Bank in London and you’re likely to encounter these familiar faces. Ripped Roman soldiers staring intensely. A man painted entirely in silver, stood completely still with only his eyeballs occasionally darting to terrify an enraptured child. At their best, living statues will leave young and old confounded or laughing.
Since March 2020, living statues and street performers across central London like Walters have been unable to ply a craft that, on a good day, can earn as much as £380. Instead, street performers across the central London borough of Westminster face a local authority in the process of introducing policies that may decimate their existence and the joy that they have provided London and its visitors for decades.
Street performers such as clown and puppeteer Richard Handley – who had only just returned to performing in London’s Covent Garden when we spoke in late October – were at a loss as to where the living statues had gone, remarking, “I haven’t seen them for months.”
Living statues’ most popular patch, the area owned by the Southbank Centre across the river from the West End, remains entirely closed to them. South Bank performers hone their craft through a licensing system that requires yearly auditions and adheres to various guidelines, including no mask wearing and costume reviews.
Mark Tate, a living statue who until recently performed on the South Bank, perfected an act with his partner Adrian South that saw them pitched outside the Southbank Centre at weekends as The Mirror Men, in matching gold and silver outfits designed and created by Mark using made-to-order mirrors.
When I speak to Tate, he is returning from his first performance since February at an outdoor event in Sussex.
“It was so nice to put on make-up again and do what we do,” he says, detailing how his existence as a “fair-weather statue” working from March to October outdoors collided directly with the pandemic shutting down the UK this year.
Having moved to Cornwall with view to splitting his and South’s time between there and London once COVID-19 subsided, the length of the pandemic has meant that they are now permanently based there, subsiding in large part from the income gained from renting out a room in their home on Airbnb.
In the West End, the situation for performers differs but presents even greater pitfalls. Although the law allows artists to perform on any public land across town, Westminster City Council has been in a process of consultation to massively curtail the spaces in which they can perform since the beginning of the year.
The City Council’s busking policy, which is being voted on in November, would ban street performers from over a thousand streets, reduce their opportunities to perform by imposing a 20 minute break between sets, and reduce the amount of pitches (the spaces they perform in) to 25, with only four of these permitting sound amplification. The only other boroughs in London to have done similar are Camden and Hillingdon.
Hazel Anderson, a physical comedy street performer and spokesperson for Save London Buskers – a campaign bringing together performers associations, the Musician’s Union and Equity among others – describes the measures as “draconian”, with the campaign stating the council has had little consultation with performers. Having not performed once since February, she laments that limiting pitches will “strip away the magical quality of stumbling across art”.
Why are these changes being implemented at a time when footfall across central London has collapsed? In a statement provided to VICE, a spokesperson for Westminster City Council cited the 1,800 complaints the council receives per year regarding “excessive noise and overcrowding caused by street entertainment”, emphasising that these proposals “try to address such concerns”.
Due to its outdoor nature, the work of living statues and street performers is one of the safest forms of art that can be practised in the midst of the pandemic. At present, however, statues are unable to return to South Bank, and have not been seen for months elsewhere.
When I ask Walters how he has been impacted by the pandemic, he reveals that his horticulture business that he had been working on in his spare time has taken off massively, providing him with stability. “Deep down I still miss performing a lot though,” he says, adding, “a performer is a performer and I love the reactions of other people.”
Tate tells me that he and his fellow South Bank living statues had a WhatsApp group pre-pandemic and that he has kept up with some who have found other forms of work. The Southbank Centre, including the pitches where the statues used to perform, remains closed.
Discussing what the future may hold, Tate says: “You do something for 30 years and you become good at it – we all want to get back to doing what we really do.”
While they are often ignored, very often poked and prodded, the future of living statues in central London remains profoundly unclear. The return to the days of Matt Walters being tapped in the face and terrifying someone because they discovered he was in fact a human, remain a long way away yet.