Last week, the latest artwork to be installed on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth was unveiled. It is called ‘The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist’ by Michael Rakowitz and is made from 10,500 empty Iraqi date syrup cans. The sculpture recreates ‘Lamassu’; a winged deity which stood guarding a gate near modern day Mosul from c700BC until 2015 when it was destroyed by Isis. It is just one of 7,000 such objects either destroyed or stolen from Iraqi museums or archaeological sites since 2003. For over a decade, Rakowitz has been attempting to recreate these objects as part of an ongoing project.
London has a plethora of statues of what I tend to just call ‘Dead White Men’ and when Trafalgar Square was originally developed in the first years of the 1840s, four such statues were planned. Charles Napier, Henry Havelock and King George IV can still be seen today, but the final statue of King William IV was never installed due to insufficient funds. Designed by Sir Charles Barry (Houses of Parliament), they got as far as constructing the plinth before calling it quits. I imagine it was always anticipated that the requisite money would be found, but 150 years later and London was still no nearer to getting its statue on what had become known as the ‘fourth plinth’.
In the mid 1990s, Prue Leith, then Chair of the Royal Society of Arts suggested something should be done about Trafalgar Square’s lonely plinth, and five years later, artist Mark Wallinger’s sculpture ‘Ecce Homo’ became the first artwork to find a temporary home there, gazing down on the tourists and pigeons.
Since 2005, the fourth plinth has become an official commission, a stage for rolling artworks which Londoners get to vote for. In recent years, many of the artworks have sought to reflect their immediate environment or the history of the square. Hans Haacke’s ‘Gift Horse’ (2015) brought together the National Gallery through English painter George Stubbs, alluding to the equestrian statue that should have adorned the plinth originally, whilst quite literally being tied to the London Stock Exchange through a ticker tape ribbon. Elmgreen & Dragset’s ‘Powerless Structures, Fig.101’ depicting a boy on a rocking horse turning away from the other statues; quite possibly suggesting we should look towards the future rather than constantly back at the past (which we do) began its shift in 2010. Yinka Shonibare’s ‘Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle’ (2010) was obviously a direct nod towards Horatio Nelson who stands high over Trafalgar Square. The sails of Shonibare’s replica ship, the HMS Victory were made from patterned textiles typical of African dress, hinting towards the legacy of British colonialism and the expansion of the British Empire made possible by Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar.
There’s been a couple of slightly more irreverent sculptures such as last years ‘Really Good’ by David Shrigley which I was a fan of, but I like the fact that Rakowitz’s current offering is casting the net wider and tackling the wholesale loss and destruction of historical and cultural artefacts on a vast scale; a catastrophe made possible after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, in which our own government was complicit. At a time when people seem to be looking inwards and isolationism and nationalism are rampant, I’m pleased that Michael Rakowitz has been given a prominent stage for the next couple of years to hopefully encourage us to look up, widen our horizons and give people the opportunity to reflect on just one small repercussion of what is termed the ‘fog of war’.
I look forward to discussing it with people in the future and see what visitors to London make of Trafalgar Square’s latest adornment.
Since 2005, the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square has had a revolving exhibition of art works. This has been possible for the very simple fact that when the square was being developed in the 1840s, they ran out of money and never got around to putting the proposed statue of William IV on it. Over the last couple of years we've seen a golden boy on a rocking horse and a big blue cock come and go, and last week the newest addition to Trafalgar Square was unveiled by Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. It's called 'Gift Horse' and has been produced by a German Sculptor called Hans Haacke.
A shortlist of 6 contenders is usually drawn up and I guess all the artists are looking to either comment on the space their work will inhabit for 18 months, or make a bold statement of some sort. Back in 2010 Yinka Shonibare put a massive ship in a bottle up there. The ship was of course Horatio Nelson's ship, the HMS Victory and with Nelson himself being the most prominent resident of the square and the fact that the square itself is named after the battle in which he died on board that ship in 1805, it seemed to tick quite a few boxes. Last years 'Hahn / Cock' by Katharina Fritsch seems to have been chosen purely on account of the fact that as the French national emblem it seemed to be rubbing French noses in it ... again. Annoying the French is of course a national pastime. I think Katharina herself suggested it was a comment on the rather phallic centre piece of Trafalgar Square, Nelson's Column. You can see both pictured below.
In 'Gift Horse', Hans Haacke gave himself the best possible chance by throwing everything but the kitchen sink at it. The sculpture itself is apparently based on an etching of a horse by George Stubbs which can be found in the National Gallery about 20 yards away from the plinth. Although, a skeleton, it is still officially a horse, so gives a nod back to the original design of the square and the equestrian statue that never was. Tied around the front leg of the horse is a ribbon on which, if you look closely, is a ticker of the London Stock Exchange, which means very little to me. However, apparently when the whole ensemble is considered as one, it shows the correlation between 'power, money and history'. You could of course add to that list ... art. So there, you have it. I guess, at the end of the day, if some people don't like it, which is inevitable, it's not going to be around for ever. I'm not meaning to belittle 'Gift Horse' so soon after its arrival, but I have to say, that I'm very much looking forward to 2016 and the proposed sculpture 'Really Good' by excellently irreverent artist David Shrigley.
Finally, I took the group photo of Colleen, Matt, Louise and Michael who joined me for my regular Saturday morning walk yesterday with Trafalgar Square's newest edition behind them.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.