It was an early spring morning. The sky deep blue and the wind cruel as journalists and international camera crews gathered for the unveiling of the tenth sculpture commissioned for Trafalgar Square’s empty fourth plinth. A stylish coffee vendor on a vintage bicycle, peddling for all he was worth to provide the necessary power, was producing very slow cups of coffee to the freezing press throng.
The Fourth Plinth is in the northwest corner of Trafalgar Square and was originally intended to hold an equestrian statue of William IV. But in 1840 the money ran out before it was completed. For over 150 years the plinth’s fate was debated. Then in 1998 the Royal Society for the Arts commissioned three sculptures intended for temporary display and the then, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Chris Smith, set up an enquiry to elicit opinions from public art commissioners, critics and members of the public as to its future. The recommendation was for a rolling programme of temporary artworks. In 2003, the ownership of Trafalgar Square was transferred from Westminster City Council to the Mayor of London. This marked the beginning of the Mayor’s Fourth Plinth Commission, which has been occupied over the years by artists such as Anthony Gormley, Marc Quinn, Yinkae Shonibare and Katarina Fritsch. Most have been British, with a smattering of Germans.
This new commission, Gift Horse by the German artist Hans Haacke, was unveiled by London’s current Mayor, the colourful Boris Johnson, and the press scrum seemed every bit as keen to catch Boris’s witty bons mots as his tousled blond hair blew in the wind, as to watch the statue’s unveiling. The sculpture portrays a skeletal, riderless horse – an ironic comment on the William IV equestrian statue originally planned for the site. Tied to the horse’s raised front leg is an electronic ribbon, like a birthday bow, which displays live prices from the London Stock Exchange. Its louring bronze frame is reminiscent of the dinosaurs in South Kensington’s Natural History Museum, though the piece was, in fact, inspired by the engraving, The Anatomy of the Horse 1766, by that master of equine painting, George Stubbs, housed in the nearby National Gallery.
Etched against the blue sky, it is a powerful work; a deconstruction of traditional equine sculptures, as well as an implicit critique of the relationships between power and money, business and art. In 1970, Haacke’s Museum of Modern Art piece, MoMA Poll, which claimed to be the first conceptual art exhibition mounted by a US museum, caused ructions during the re-election campaign of Governor Nelson Rockefeller – a major MoMA donor and former museum president whose brother was chairman at the time – when two plexi-glass ballot boxes were placed in the gallery to allow people ‘to vote’ on his policy towards the Vietnam war. A subsequent work about the business of a notorious New York slumlord was dropped by the Guggenheim museum. Haacke is not afraid of the big political statement.
Born in Cologne in 1936, he has made paintings, taken photographs and written texts. He’s had solo exhibitions at the Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, as well as in Berlin. His work has been included in four Documentas and numerous biennials. In 1993 he shared a Golden Lion Award with Nam June Paik for the best pavilion at the 45th Venice Biennale, while in 2000 he unveiled a permanent installation in the Reichstag, Berlin. Yet when the 78 year old artist, who has lived and worked in Manhattan for the last 50 years, was invited to submit a proposal he assumed it was a joke and that his often contentious work would never be accepted. However, the plinth project appealed to him and he began to work on an idea for a 13ft-high horse skeleton cast in bronze. He has stated that he believes inequality to be one of the major issues of our time, so was ‘flabbergasted’ when selected for the Trafalgar Square project. Particularly as his work has made no bones about exposing the clandestine interconnections behind money, politics and art. He has uncovered the Nazi background of prominent collectors and of the German Venice Biennale pavilion, revealed numerous links between art institutions, British Leyland and apartheid South Africa, tobacco and oil companies. As his work habitually draws on its location, Gift Horse’s references to the City of London are hardly surprising.
Waving his arms around, as if to give gravitas and validity to his art criticism, Boris described the skeletal sculpture as a metaphor for the “vital importance of transport in our great urban infrastructure”. Horses, he suggested, had been central to our transport for hundreds of years and the tubular structure mirrored the underground tube network in our great global cultural capital. It was a clever sleight of hand. His witty delivery allowed him to enthuse about the piece without ever acknowledging that it is a critique on contemporary economic and artistic culture. Perhaps as a politician he lost a golden moment; to come clean about the interconnections instead of offering yet more hollow rhetoric. Instead he looked a gift horse in the mouth.
Commissioned for the Mayor of London’s Fourth Plinth Programme
Boris Johnson in Trafalgar Square being interviewed by Channel 4 News
Both images © of Sue Hubbard