The latest work on the Trafalgar Square sculpture platform is calculated to please just about everyone, from school parties to contemporary-art buffs.
Yinka Shonibare’s sculpture on the Fourth Plinth glittered in the morning sun as it was revealed to the world yesterday. “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle” is precisely what the title suggests: a representation done to scale of H.M.S. Victory, Admiral Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, set in an oversized, transparent receptacle.
Rigging, decks and other fittings are historically accurate, much as they were when they faced the Spanish and French fleets on October 21, 1805. Only one detail is different: The sails are brightly patterned. The “Dutch wax” fabric looks African and actually came from Indonesian traditions. It is a signature material in Shonibare’s work, originally manufactured in Europe, particularly the Netherlands, and exported to West Africa.
The textile is a result of globalization, a process that has been going on for centuries. Shonibare’s point is that so is he, an Anglo-Nigerian artist, born and educated in Britain and largely brought up in Lagos. And so too is multi-ethnic, multicultural London itself.
Trafalgar, the Victory, and Nelson -- whose memorial column stands in the square -- played a role in that process. If the British fleet hadn’t won that day, the country’s imperial reach would have been curtailed, and a lot of people, including perhaps Shonibare himself, would have grown up speaking French not English.
“Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle” is linked to its historical context in a way that no previous Fourth Plinth sculpture has managed to be. It succeeds looking highly attractive too.
As a result, Shonibare’s project comes high on the Fourth Plinth hit parade. (It ranks far higher than Antony Gormley’s attempt at mass-participation performance art last summer, in which volunteers took turns to stand on the plinth -- and few could think of anything worthwhile to do once they were there.)
Just before putting Shonibare’s sculpture on show, Mayor Boris Johnson asked a question. What, he enquired of the audience, was the secret that enabled Admiral Nelson to win that celebrated naval battle? The assembled art-world notables and media scrum scratched their heads until the mayor revealed his answer: “He had a lot of bottle.”
Johnson accidentally put his finger on one of the few aspects of Shonibare’s piece that disappoints. It would be good if there were more bottle, and for that matter, more ship (more, admittedly, than the plinth could probably accommodate with safety). This is a work that would be better if it were bigger.
As it is, it does not dominate the square in quite the way it might -- in the manner that Marc Quinn’s “Alison Lapper Pregnant” did when it was on the Fourth Plinth in 2005-7. There is nothing like a gigantic sculpture of a human figure to command a large classical space such as Trafalgar Square.
“Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle” doesn’t quite have that sort of visual oomph. Indeed, you have to get quite close to appreciate the model ship itself. It would look better in a smaller area at a lower height. That’s unlikely to prevent it from being, for now, the most popular item in the Square.
The sculpture was commissioned by the Mayor of London, supported by Arts Council England and the Henry Moore Foundation and with sponsorship from Guaranty Trust Bank Plc of Nigeria.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)