London’s public sculpture used to be soberly dull. Recently, though, the genre has been getting wackier: Consider the proposals for the next occupant of the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square that were unveiled yesterday.
They include, among other items, a huge, blue chicken, a working pipe organ with attached ATM and a monumental slice of cake modeled out of Victorian brick. All of these make my own idea -- a colorful figure of Mayor Boris Johnson by Jeff Koons, created on the lines of his representations of La Cicciolina and the late Michael Jackson -- seem tamely conventional.
Admittedly, there are a couple of proposals -- out of six on the shortlist -- that play on the old-fashioned idea of urban statuary (namely, an elderly man, eminent in warfare or administration). The Scandinavian art duo Elmgreen & Dragset suggests “Powerless Structures, Fig.101,” a bronze figure of a boy astride a rocking horse.
This, the press release explains, “gently questions” the previous norm (their figure being a: youthful and b: engaged in a harmless activity rather than government or armed conflict). It’s the gentleness that’s the problem. The person in the street is going to wonder who this boy is supposed to be -- Nelson in childhood perhaps?
The same objection applies to Hew Locke’s “Sikandar.” This is a replica of one of those generals, Field Marshal George White, who sits on horseback in Portland Place. The artist intends to festoon a replica of this with charms, medals, jewels and whatnot as if it were an ancestor figure in a shrine. It’s a witty concept, yet to the passerby may just resemble a lot of litter that has settled for some reason on Sir George.
With this new-style public sculpture you have to be splashy and obvious. It can be abstract, like Anish Kapoor’s giant mirror-surfaced blob “Cloud Gate” in Chicago. Or it can be figurative. It doesn’t much matter what it means, if anything, but it has to be eye-catching and fun.
Mariele Neudecker’s “It’s Never Too Late and You Can’t Go Back” -- a large map of the U.K. with mountains sprouting out of it -- is more peculiar than wacky. So that brings us back to the three wild projects with which I began. Of these, “Untitled (ATM/Organ)” by Allora & Calzadilla, a Cuban-American collaboration, is appealingly nutty -- but out, I suspect, on noise pollution grounds.
Nicholas Penny, the director of the National Gallery who has already complained about the fairground-like shenanigans in Trafalgar Square, wouldn’t be the only local citizen to suffer from the organ notes “which will apparently reverberate throughout the square every time someone operates the ATM” (about every 30 seconds, I would guess, during business hours).
“Battenberg” by Brian Griffiths also is arrestingly strange: a representation of a party-colored sponge cake that was invented to mark a royal wedding in the 19th century, made out of old and new bricks. This is an idea that sounds better than it would look, which would be like a rectangular pile of old bricks.
So my money is on the chicken, or to be precise cockerel, “Hahn/Cock” by the German artist Katharina Fritsch. I don’t believe a single spectator would imagine this to be an ironic comment on male-defined British society, as the press release states. But a giant blue chicken in Trafalgar Square. Now, that’s a sight the modern public could happily connect with.
The six proposals on the shortlist are on display at St.- Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London, through Oct. 31. Information: http://www.london.gov.uk/fourthplinth/.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer on the story: Martin Gayford in London at firstname.lastname@example.org.