The Fourth Plinth is probably the most famous public art commission in the world and it all began back in 1994 when after 150 years with an empty plinth, Prue Leith, then chair of the Royal Society of Arts wrote a letter to the Evening Standard suggesting that something should be done about the empty plinth in Trafalgar. This sparked a flurry of public debate. Five years later, it hosted the first artwork, ‘Ecce Homo’ by Mark Wallinger and ever since, the Mayor of London’s Fourth Plinth programme has invited leading artists to make sculptures for the plinth. These artworks have so far included a bright blue cockerel, a golden rocking horse and even people themselves standing on the plinth for 100 days.
No wonder then that the Fourth Plinth has attracted a huge amount of public interest and when I give my tours it is a pretty regular occurence to be asked what on earth it is all about. The Fourth Plinth art is never a simple thing of beauty but instead is deliberately made to make people think about sometimes challenging subjects.
Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle’ was a scale (1:30) replica of HMS Victory in a bottle. It was the first commission by a black British artist, and the first to reflect on its setting. Trafalgar Square commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar, and links directly with Nelson’s column. The ship’s 37 large sails were made of patterned textiles typical of African dress. They are used to show African identity and independence. The work considers the legacy of British colonialism and its expansion in trade and Empire. This was made possible through the freedom of the seas and the new trade routes that Nelson’s victory provided.
It now has a permanent home at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
‘Alison Lapper Pregnant’, Marc Quinn, 2005
This was a 3.6m tall, 13-tonne Carrara marble figure of the artist Alison Lapper. She was born with phocomelia and has no arms and shortened legs. The sculpture publicly celebrated a different idea of beauty. It asked us to question our narrow view of what is and what isn’t socially acceptable. The sculpture’s presence was also a huge boost for disabled rights in the UK. A huge inflatable version of the sculpture was later a centrepiece of the London 2012 Paralympic Games opening ceremony and people here are still proud that the ParaOlympics in London 2012 is still the only Paralympics that was consistently sold out.
My favourite of recent years has been ‘Gift Horse’ which was a skeletal, riderless horse in bronze. It was based on an etching by George Stubbs, an English painter whose works can be seen in the National Gallery. Tied to the horse’s front leg was an electronic ribbon with a live ticker of the London Stock Exchange. This completed the link between power, money and history. The sculpture directly references the equestrian statue of William IV originally planned for the plinth.
2017 saw Trafalgar Square given the big thumbs up in a piece of art that was designed to illustrate what a great city London is and what a great future there might be given the recent Brexit vote.
Now though, the 2018 statue has just been unveiled and in keeping with the thought provoking tradition. Michael Rakowitz’s new work for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square shimmers, whatever the weather. A life-sized copy of the winged god that stood at the Nergal Gate of Nineveh from 700 BC until its destruction by Islamic State in 2015, Rakowitz’s replica in London recalls what has been lost and makes it new. Its scale perfectly matches the proportions of the empty fourth plinth. Riveted together from 10,500 empty Iraqi date-syrup cans, the relief sculpture has a disconcerting exactitude, with its polychrome wing on one side, the sheer gold wall and cuneiform inscription on the other, the god’s implacable face, its ruinous majesty.
Rakowitz’s project is a reminder that what was destroyed by Isis including the ancient lamassu cannot be replaced. The art is also tells us something about their loss and absence. Symbols and representations change their meanings with time; they are hostages to belief and ideology, to conflicting cultures. Images are powerful, which is why people have always wanted to destroy them. Fragility, sorrow and resistance, absence and presence come together in this project. The lamassu refuses to disappear. It persists.
It is also a reminder to us all that in parts of the world where some people seemingly want to go back to the stoneage, that thousands of years years ago their ancestors were amongst the greatest, most glorious and culturally sophisticated people in the history of the world and in a city that has too had more than its fair share of Islamic terrorism it is an act of defiance and solidarity. It faces south east towards the ancient city of Nineveh where the winged lamassu stood for over 6,000 years.
I think this is an amazing piece of work and as someone who finds the Babylonians to be the most incredible of the ancient civilisations I naturally love it. It is actually part of a bigger art project which Rakowitz has labelled The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist and will involve recreating 7,000 objects that were destroyed in Iraqi museums.