Thomas Schütte’s sculpture for Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth is a genuinely public work
It is a dull morning and the heavy November sky seems to press down on the grey stone of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, as assorted press and a few stray tourists gather for the unveiling of Thomas Schütte’s new sculpture for the fourth plinth, Model for a Hotel. Veiled in silky white covers, the breeze tugs at the hem, lifting it up like a Victorian lady’s skirts to reveal, not ankles, but flashes of red, yellow and blue glass. The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, makes a speech and threatens any pigeons, audacious enough to dirty the sculpture, with his infamous hawk. Schütte, though, has expressed more tolerance of the birds’ presence. For him the sculpture provides a real hotel for the birds and his original maquette, first shown in 2003, was called Hotel for the Birds. “I don’t want to interfere,” he has said. “The droppings will inevitably be there, along with the wind and rain and the buildings around the square.”
And then the covers are pulled off, floating away in the breeze like a giant hot air balloon, to reveal a gem-like structure in flat glass sections that might have been influenced as much by a boy’s Meccano kit as by modernist architecture or Russian constructivism.
And what is it like? Beautiful, actually. As you walk round it seems different from every angle. The colour looks particularly rich against the monochromatic stone, and the sharp angles created by the sheets of glass seem to incorporate the flat areas of grey sky into the structure itself. It is as if someone has picked up a paintbrush and filled in a black-and-white painting by numbers with bold primary colour. Model for a Hotel is constructed in the shape of an architectural model composed of three blocks, a building with 21 storeys, a big lobby, and a horizontal block of eight storeys, extending over the edge of the plinth. Each part is attached to the other, so that it reaches a total height of 5 metres and is about the same size as the plinth.
Located in the north-west corner of Trafalgar Square, opposite the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, the fourth plinth was originally designed by Sir Charles Barry and built in 1841 to display an equestrian statue, but insufficient funds meant the plinth remained empty until in 1998 the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce commissioned a series of three works by Mark Wallinger, Bill Woodrow and Rachel Whiteread for temporary display. The project was such a success that the plinth has continued to be used for an on ongoing series of temporary works by leading artists.
Fake / Function, Henry Moore Institute
Thomas Schütte, unusually for a contemporary artist, does not seek the limelight. This project came out of his series of architectural models for imaginary buildings begun in 1980. At the age of 53, and as a past student of the painter Gerhard Richter at the Düsseldorf Academy, he has always been a bit of a maverick who has taken his ideas as much from set design and architecture as conceptual art. Presently on show at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, his early work investigates the nature of art and illusion. His website lists a plethora of enterprises from architectural models to ceramics, from watercolours, drawings and installations, to sculptures in which he has used a baffling array of materials and styles.
Model for a Hotel is, in every way, a contrast to Marc Quinn’s white, armless figure of Alison Lapper Pregnant, the most recent occupant of the plinth. Hotel is much more likely to become a popular landmark. You can imagine it being used as a contemporary version of the clock at Waterloo Station and becoming a recognised meeting point. It will appeal to revellers on their way home after a late night, who will stand and watch its coloured sheets being lit up by the early morning sun like the stained glass in a church window, or those hurrying to work who, passing it on a daily basis, find that each time it looks different due to the changing conditions of the light. And that is, of course, what good public art should do; become a landmark for private reflection. Iconic, yet unexpected, Model for a Hotel quietly insists that the viewer stop and think about the city and his or her role in it. It is, of course, also quietly ironic, playing with notions of kitsch and monumentality; aware, in its DayGlo party colours, that it is usurping, here in Trafalgar Square, the monumental tradition of the General on his Horse and a certain naval dignitary lording it over the populace below.
While it looks utilitarian, it also appears to suggest the possibility of sustenance, shelter, companionship and civic involvement. It obliquely nods at all sorts of utopian enterprises and their dystopian counterparts.
Using colour, steel and glass to explore ideas about outside and inside (and by definition what is included and what excluded), Model for a Hotel asks fundamental questions about the artist and society. It may also provide protection for those unwitting pigeons from Ken’s hawk.
Thomas Schütte Fake/Function at the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds until 6 January 2008
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008
Images © the Thomas Schütte
Published in New Statesman