I remember the moment I first saw a work by Yinka Shonibare, the artist whose giant ship-in-a-bottle-5-metres-long is now on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. Above is a snap which is probably bad enough to be included in a manual on what not to do with a camera. I'm trying to show three linked items:
- on top of the plinth in a glass bottle is Shonibare’s model of the flagship HMS Victory on which Nelson died at the Battle of Trafalgar
- Nelson's Column
- and a glimpse in the background of a Sea Cadet parade celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar one sunny October morning.
The worst fault is that the image fails to show the colour-drenched ship's sails. The sails inside the bottle are billowing as if in a stiff breeze and it's they who make the link with Shonibare's famous earlier work 'The Swing'.
Shonibare had achieved a dazzling critique of the painting on the left, The Swing, by the French painter Fragonard, now in the Wallace Collection off Oxford Street. Some thought the painting charming or shallow or erotic - especially the view the young nobleman in the left has, and the secret priest-lover pushing the swing from behind,but it brought Fragonard immediate success.
In Shonibare's version of the sculpture the girl is headless. And look at what she is wearing - a multicoloured cloud of skirts and petticoats and a distinct lack of satins and silks.
Nigerian-born Shonibare comments on the sails of HMS Victory: "We think of some fabrics as African textiles; in fact these are Indonesian textiles produced by the Dutch for the African market. I'm interested therefore in their global nature, in the Indonesian, Dutch and indeed British connections, since they were also manufactured in Manchester. The sails are a metaphor for the global connections of contemporary people. This piece celebrates the legacy of Nelson – and the legacy that victory at the battle of Trafalgar left us is Britain's contact with the rest of the world, which has in turn created the dynamic, cool, funky city that London is."