The Fourth Plinth Shortlist Exhibition
‘Utter rubbish’ said a man who sidled up to me in the foyer of the National Gallery at the exhibition of shortlisted proposals for the forthcoming Fourth Plinth sculptures. This is the wonderful thing about the Fourth Plinth, it invites public debate about sculpture and contemporary art. Love them or hate them, people enjoy engaging in this discussion.
The five shortlisted works for the 2018 and 2020 commissions on display represent a cross-section of artistic practices, with works that are formally diverse and multi-layered in their political engagement. This shortlist is the most international to-date, with artists and collectives from England, America, Mexico, India and Pakistan.
Pakistani born, New York based artist Huma Bhaba’s Untitled is a prehistoric, post-apocalyptic figure that combines cork and polystyrene. This sculpture employs two materials that are seemingly at odds with one another. One is an organic, naturally produced age-old material, the other is a bright white product of modern technology that threatens our natural ecology. These materials have been combined by Bhaba to create this otherworldly figure. Untitled references a range of modernist sculpture, from the binary constructions of Brancusi to the expressive forms of Rodin. Bhaba cites her own influences as ranging from the cinematography of sci-fi classic ‘Stalker’ to the architecture of ancient lost cities. Untitled, like the strata of its material structure, is a work that is layered with possible readings and references, making it a richly, evocative work.
Also turning to the architecture of ancient cities, American artist Michael Rakowitz’s work, The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist forms part of a long-term project by Rakowitz, recreating more than 7,000 archaeological artefacts looted from the Iraq Museum during the war or destroyed in its aftermath which he makes using recycled packaging from Middle Eastern foodstuffs.
For the Fourth Plinth, Rakowitz has proposed to make a Lamassu, a winged bull and protective deity that stood at the entrance to the Nergal Gate of Ninevah in Northern Iraq from circa 700 BC until February 2015, when it was destroyed by ISIS along with other artefacts in the nearby Mosul Museum. The original work measured approximately fourteen feet, dimensions similar to those of the Fourth Plinth. Rakowitz’s Lamassu will be recreated using empty metal Iraqi date syrup cans, acknowledging this once renowned industry that has now been decimated by the Iraq Wars.
Reconceiving the Lamassu in Trafalgar Square, Rakowitz imagines that this sculpture can continue performing its duties as a guardian of Nineveh’s past, present and future, even as a refugee or ghost. Using simple materials, Rakowitz has proposed a multi-layered work that address issues of war, industry and history.
The Emperor’s Old Clothes by Indian artists, Raqs Media Collective also picks up the themes of displacement and disappearance found in Rakowitz’s work. The Emperor’s Old Clothes takes a sculptural relic of the British Empire in India found at Coronation Park, a site of historical significance in Delhi as its starting point. It conflates this with the tale by Hans Christian Anderson about an emperor who is duped into wearing an invisible new suit by tailors who claim that it is only invisible to those who are not suited to their positions of power. This work begs questions about the presence and absence of power. The Emperor’s Old Clothes also encourages viewers to look at the figures atop the other pedestals in Trafalgar Square to consider what they represent. Made in opaque resin to convey a sense of transparency, this simple, yet evocative cloak, encourages thoughtful contemplations about history, power and narrative.
British artist Heather Phillipson’s THE END examines some of these concerns, but through the lens of excess. Her proposal takes the form of a large dollop of cream with a cherry on top, oozing over the plinth. A parasite is nestled within this creamy host. Just next to it, a drone is trapped in the cream, alerting viewers to the prevalence of surveillance, especially in a highly public space such as Trafalgar Square. In fact, the stem of the cherry contains a camera that records passers-by and projects this footage onto a screen mounted on the plinth. THE END is both a humorous and sinister sculpture that encourages viewers to think about overabundance and overload.
In stark contrast, Mexican artist, Damian Ortega’s High Way pays reverence to the simpler things in life. His sculptural assemblage of a truck, oil cans, scaffolding and ladders is inspired by the street monuments, structures and inventions that he often sees along the side of the road. This work pays homage to the everyday, the overlooked. High Way seems to point out that even thought things may seem irregular, imbalanced and frail, they can in fact be stable and durable and should be appreciated for what they are.
These five shortlisted proposals are currently on view at London’s National Gallery until the 26 March 2017. Visitors are invited to leave their feedback on their favoured proposals, both at the exhibition and on the Mayor’s Office website. Ultimately, the Fourth Plinth committee will select two works to replace the current sculpture, a seven metre bronze thumbs-up with an extra-long thumb by British artist, David Shrigley. Entitled Really Good. A work is meant to provide a bit of optimism that somewhere, something surely must be ‘really good’.
The shortlisted proposals employ wit, humour and visual interest to address big issues. Ultimately, whichever works are selected for the smallest sculpture park in the world they too will undoubtedly be ‘really good.’
Fourth Plinth Shortlist Exhibition
19 January – 26 March 2017
The National Gallery
London WC2N 5DN
Daily 10am – 6pm
Friday 10am – 9pm