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The fourth plinth goes shipshape

Yinka Shonibare's message in a bottle will, at long last, bring Trafalgar Square's naval history to the empty plinth

I never thought I would hear myself say this, but I'm getting quite excited about the unveiling of the next public sculpture on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. Yinka Shonibare's work, Nelson's Ship in a Bottle, will be revealed on 24 May 2010. It will be what it says on the bottle: a scale replica of HMS Victory, with African textiles for sails, in a huge ... bottle.

I thought it looked daft when the maquettes for this and other rival candidates for the commission were displayed in the National Gallery. But it won the public vote along with Antony Gormley. And it's caught my interest.

That is because, uniquely of all the conceptual works devised for the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square, this one refers to the the name of the square, the man on the column at its centre, and the history this grand public space actually commemorates. What has been missing from the fourth plinth hoo-hahs over recent years has been the works' and their admirers' empty refusal to acknowledge that Trafalgar Square is laden with history as well as art history. This reached its bizarre apotheosis when everyone discussed Marc Quinn's supposedly radical contribution, the sculpture of Alison Lapper, without acknowledging that Trafalgar Square does already possess a statue of a hero who happens to be disabled, on top of Nelson's Column. (Nelson was blind in one eye, and his right arm had to be amputated after it was hit by musket fire in battle at Tenerife in 1797.)

Shonibare is to be commended for actually inviting people to consider the Battle of Trafalgar, the British navy, the Napoleonic wars and all that other old stuff which this square is supposed to remember. You can, of course, see Nelson's real ship: the actual HMS Victory in Portsmouth's open-air naval museum is a truly staggering entity – a vast and terrifying wooden fortress. You feel dwarfed by its immense cannon-bristling mass. As a child I got nightmares from visiting the dark gun decks with their floors painted the colour of blood.

What does it mean to put this ship in a bottle? And is this bottled past labelled with love, or irony? I can't wait to find out.


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