Tuesday, 28 February 2012


 Trafalgar Square - Fourth Plinth

You do not turn up at Trafalgar Square for a bit of peace and quiet. On Sunday morning the square was preparing to celebrate Maslenitsa, the Russian way of welcoming  spring. A band was tuning up in a marquee and around the perimeter were dozens of temporary cafes (‘kiosks’ would not do them justice). At the foot of the National Gallery were small covered stalls selling anything from carved toys to language books to hand-crafted clothing. In contrast, in one corner was a tightly-packed ring of Asian Christians with Bibles and prayer books, preparing to worship or evangelise or both. Around us were people climbing the lions, sunbathing, snacking, taking pictures...

It's hard to like ‘a euro-child in shorts on an Ikea flat-pack toy’ says Laura Cumming in the Guardian. Amen to that.
 I did not notice many raising their heads to look up at the newcomer on the block. Had they done so they’d have seen Powerless Structures, Fig. 101., a 4.1m high golden bronze sculpture of a boy astride his rocking horse. It has replaced Shonibare’s Ship-in-a-Bottle. (I have heard no news yet as to whether or not that was rescued).

A critic who likes the newcomer – Alistair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph – says Powerless Structures is 'a strong and simple idea that people will 'get' in an instant, almost as quickly as it will make them smile’. And the smile will be  even broader for those in the know. The plinth itself,  built in 1841, was designed for a bronze equestrian statue of King William IV which was never installed.  So 171 years later we have an anonymous boy, not a king. and a toy horse, not a magnificent charger. The joke is at the expense of all those statues the streets of Europe have harboured for centuries, dating back to Roman times:  bronze statues of emperors, kings, generals on horseback, often with the same commanding wave of the hand. We’re making fun of our past pretencion's as conquerors and heroes. Here is a boy who is, according to Alistair Sooke 'Nude aside from a pair of skimpy shorts held up by braces (lederhosen? hot-pants?), (with) a camp insouciance that only enhances the work’s cheeky message'.

And the horse is glum and toothless. It looks as though it has been made of cheap wood, then spray painted. Its mane and tail are in ringlets which hang down  in straight rows like fat sausages. It's an out-of-date toy, only seen in the nurseries of the rich and now relegated to decorating  Christmas cards or being a prop in The Nutcracker ballet. 

So far so good if you want irony. But shouldn't there be more?  Joy perhaps?  Couldn't the boy look  a little animated as he imagines  chasing the baddies out of town or surging into battle against rows of tin soldiers?   And why a boy when almost all public figurative statues are of males? Why not have a girl on horseback? Better still, to be inclusive, a girl with a boy as pillion passenger? With the breeze flowing through their hair and a look of engagement and fun. 

The idea of using such a plinth in such a prominent place to draw a line under our regard for past male-only  militaristic leaders is refreshing. So too is having a sculpture which contrasts with some of the more tortured or layered works which have occupied the space in the past few years.  But is it an opportunity missed in favour of an in-joke and the less-than-universal appeal of the boy or the horse? 



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