Fourth Plinth, Trafalgar Square,May 25th 2010
Yesterday the latest commission for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square was unveiled: Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, by leading Anglo-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare.
The artwork is the first commission on the Fourth Plinth to address the historical symbolism of Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s column. Within a beautiful shell of thick glass the ship’s 37 large sails are made of richly patterned textiles commonly associated with African dress and symbolic of African identity and independence. According to the Fourth Plinth commissioners, “the history of the fabric reveals that they were inspired by Indonesian batik design, mass produced by the Dutch and sold to the colonies in West Africa. The work therefore deals with the complexity of British expansion in trade and Empire, made possible through the freedom of the seas that Nelson’s victory provided”.
To celebrate its arrival a launch party was held at the Trafalgar Hilton, where a crowd gathered in the London heat, their make-up melting and delicate dresses sticking to their backs, to raise glasses to Shonibare’s artwork. Further to its historical symbolism, Shonibare’s work became a platform for expressing fear for the precarious position of public art funding. On a day when, only a few hundred metres down the road, the coalition government announced more than £6bn of immediate spending cuts, an artwork jointly funded by the Arts Council England, a bank (Guaranty Trust Bank) and the Mayor of London acquired greater political significance. Moira Sinclair (Executive Director of Arts Council England) caused the guests to hoot and cheer in response to her rousing speech emphasising the importance of funding public art. Similarly the CEO of Guaranty Trust Bank praised the role of art within corporate funding policies.
In his speech at the launch Shonibare stated that the work reflects the story of multiculturalism in London. It is also an object of wonder, recalling a childhood fascination with the apparent miracle of design that is a ship in a bottle. The idea that the ship is trapped, forever bound in its tiny ocean around which the bottle appears to have grown, is much more exciting than the technical reality of strings and flat-packed ships. Walking home across Trafalgar Square in the lowering heat we stopped to look up at the glowing bottle, translucent and beautiful with lights shining up through the sails, a bright moon in the sky beyond, and it was very apparent that as well as creating an intellectually interesting work Shonibare has successfully instated the sense of mystery associated with a ship in a bottle. Shonibare’s fourth plinth contribution is a strong public artwork that will hopefully carry this excellent commissioning site through any stormy seas that may be on the horizon.