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April 23 2012

Yinka Shonibare's ship in a bottle goes on permanent display in Greenwich

Artwork that won fans on Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth is moved to new home after public help raise £362,500

Yinka Shonibare's ship in a bottle is to remain on public display in the UK after the success of a public fundraising appeal, it has been announced.

The work, a scaled-down replica of Nelson's ship Victory first seen on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, was this week being installed in its new home in Greenwich, outside the new Sammy Ofer wing of the National Maritime Museum.

The work was secured with the help of £264,300 in contributions from the public after the Art Fund launched an appeal last November. Shonibare said he was "absolutely delighted and touched by the public's generosity".

He added: "The piece was wholeheartedly embraced by the public while at Trafalgar Square and I am glad that the same affection for the work will continue at Greenwich."

The appeal for £362,500 was launched by the Art Fund after it gave a grant of £50,000. As well as the public money, both the National Maritime Museum and Shonibare's gallery, Stephen Friedman, gave £49,100. Overall, the work was valued at £650,000, but £140,000 of that – production costs – had been met by the Fourth Plinth programme and the gallery had given a 15% museum discount of £97,500.

Nelson's Ship in a Bottle, 4.7 metres in length and 2.8 metres in diameter, goes on display in time for the museum's 75th anniversary on 25 April.

Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund, said it had been the charity's first fundraising appeal for a contemporary work. "It is not an easy environment in which to run a campaign but the campaign's success is testimony to the popularity of Yinka's work and to the continued generosity of the many enlightened individuals upon whom the charitable sector depends." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 19 2012

Off their rockers

A bronze boy on a rocking horse will bound on to the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square on Thursday. Why have Elmgreen and Dragset made him so camp?

Glinting in the cold winter light, the boy on a rocking horse towers over everything in the bronze foundry in east London where it was cast – including Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, the Scandinavian artists who created it. The boy looms, too, over fragments of wax castings lying broken in the gloom and dust. The atmosphere, the technology and the banter around us are almost medieval. This is a place where people actually make things. Other works, in various states of incompletion, stand about, including one by Marc Quinn, whose sculpture of Alison Lapper Pregnant occupied Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth from 2005 to 2007.

Elmgeen does most of the talking. "He's Danish," Dragset says. "We Norwegians are … slower." Elmgreen steps in, explaining that many hands helped to make the boy. "We love to do these multiple collaborations," he says. "I think artists always did. It's bonkers when conservative critics blame artists for not making their own work today, because they never could. You can't run a foundry on your own. No one ever did that."

Powerless Structures Fig 101, as the piece by the Berlin-based artists is called, will replace Yinka Shonibare's Nelson's Ship in a Bottle, which spent 18 months on the plinth. The crew at the foundry have done a great job, making the boy look almost gilded, the horse like spray-painted MDF. With his curls and wry smile, this golden boy in his little shorts and braces peers down from his bronze steed, one arm raised delicately. He looks almost classical. But look again. Those shorts could be leather. He might also be down the disco, I suggest. "He is a bit camp," says Elmgreen. "He's almost a Victorian toy, but the horse is more an Ikea version."

Elmgreen and Dragset's artistic collaboration began by chance. They met in a gay club in Copenhagen and discovered that they lived not just on the same street, but in the same building. They became lovers and, later, artistic collaborators. Their friendship has moved on, but the two have continued to make work together since 1997, the year they moved to Berlin.

When they have transformed galleries into gay nightclubs and saunas, they have just wanted to show people how they live. Celebrity: the One and the Many, a recent gargantuan work in Rotterdam, replicated a social housing block and a glitzy ballroom – full size. Actors played hustlers, teenage mums and sex workers, and you could peek into people's lonely apartments. In 2009, they converted the Danish and Nordic pavilions at the Venice Biennale into a couple of art collectors' houses. There were lots of art jokes. A mannequin of a dead collector floated face down in a swimming pool, a sort of warning to the rich who wandered through the biennale.

What could be more conservative, and at once so unexpected, as a bronze boy on a horse? The permanent sculpture originally planned for the plinth, more than 170 years ago, was an equestrian statue of William IV, but the money ran out. "We don't sit down and think what could piss people off," says Dragset, who began his career in theatre. "We think of our work as welcoming and even poetic," adds Elmgreen, a former poet. "When people go to a gallery or a museum, they ask for trouble. Here you need to take the people passing through the square into consideration. The context is the starting point."

Trafalgar Square is all about symbols of power. The artists want the boy on the horse to be more vulnerable, while maintaining a connection with the materials and aesthetics of the permanent statues and monuments there. "It needs to be in a dialogue," says Elmgreen. "We consciously used these authoritarian tricks, like having the boy gaze down at you, to talk about something that's rather unauthoritarian." I ask if they see their work as having a social purpose. "We are Scandinavian, maybe we can't help it," Dragset replies. "Boys grow up still thinking they need to be a hero," says Elmgreen. "Trafalgar Square is a symbol of that. It is so masculine. We are talking about a different kind of masculinity."

The boy on the horse, as the artists see it, is a depiction of what we should really celebrate: banal, everyday life, the heroism of the unexceptional, the powerless. "The word hero is also a problematic term," Elmgreen says, "because it is about being outstanding. But what about being a hero because you managed to grow up at all, despite all the obstacles? It is heroic to become a relatively civilised human being, despite everything. Not everyone can be fucking brilliant, and people feel like a big failure if they're not going to become a successful banker, have perfect tits or win The X Factor. Before, you could be proud of being the 13th generation of steel workers in the family, or keeping the wheels running in a society."

The pair see their work as an antidote to "this American Dream sickness". When their Welfare Show was at the Serpentine Gallery in 2008, they got Tony Benn to come and speak. "The best thing about the fourth plinth is that it creates such public debate," says Elmgreen. "And when it's all settled, it's time for the next show. It is actually really progressive to have a new public sculpture in the most significant square in London. It's such a positive symbol of a city in flux. Permanent public sculptures have a tendency to go out of date, because the city is changing around them. A lot of sculptures in different town squares look somehow random, even if they made sense when they were first installed. They maybe had a radical formal language, corresponding with the architecture, but then the architecture changed and the language ceased to be radical. People come to look, but they don't know why these sculptures are there. I think you should be able to move some of these permanent sculptures and make things a bit more lively."

Elmgreen and Dragset have their own solution to the problem of unwanted public sculptures. "We actually have a hospice, or a kennel, for public sculptures that are unpopular. It's in a very remote area of northern Germany. It is a plot of land with a nice white fence around it and an illuminated sign: Park for Unwanted Sculptures." They haven't got Richard Serra's Tilted Arc in there, by any chance? "No!" Dragset cries. "We should write to him!" For a minute, I think he's going to ask me for a phone number for Serra, whose magnificent sculpture in New York's Federal Plaza was removed, after years of debate, in 1989. Are Elmgreen and Dragset afraid of failure on the plinth?

"One thing that is absolutely forbidden in the public realm is to show emotions and be fragile," Elmgreen says. "That is something we wanted to touch upon in the square, where it's all about power. The sculpture is not about pop culture issues, or what is in trend at the moment. You step outside the whole thing and try to speak with another voice."

"It's beyond that," says Dragset. "It's like daring to expose sides of yourself you're not supposed to show. Like vulnerability. It is often on our minds at the moment. Dare to be uncool!"

• The sculpture, in Trafalgar Square, London WC2, will be unveiled in a public ceremony at 9.30am on Thursday 23 February. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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September 29 2011

Mark Wallinger: ponies, politics and a police box

The work of the Turner prize-winning artist is the subject of an iconic new book. Here are some highlights

January 14 2011

Rocking the square

London mayor Boris Johnson announces next works of art to occupy London landmark

A child on a rocking horse and a giant cockerel, both by artists based in Germany, have been chosen as the next works of art to grace the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.

The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, announced the selections this morning. "All of the shortlisted artists show what an extraordinary crucible the fourth plinth is for contemporary art," he said.

The child on the horse, which will take its place on the plinth next year, is by the Scandanavian duo of Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, while the cockerel, which will be unveiled in 2013, is by Katharina Fritsch.

Elmgreen & Dragset's Powerless Structures, Fig 101, which will be cast in bronze, portrays a boy astride his rocking horse.

Its creators say the child is elevated to the status of a historical hero in the context of the iconography of Trafalgar Square. Instead of acknowledging the heroism of the powerful, the work is said to celebrate the heroism of growing up and gently question the tradition for monuments predicated on military victory or defeat.

German artist Katharina Fritsch's proposal, Hahn/Cock, is a giant cockerel in ultramarine blue. The cockerel is a popular motif in modernist art, symbolising regeneration, awakening and strength.

Johnson said the fourth plinth sparked the imagination and attracted a "tremendous response" from the public.

"As we head towards 2012 – a pivotal year for culture as well as sport – these witty and enigmatic creations underline London's position as one of the most exciting cities for art and are sure to keep people talking," he said.

The selection was made by a commissioning group chaired by Ekow Eshun. "Elmgreen and Dragset and Katharina Fritsch are distinguished artists with major international reputations," Eshun said. "Their selection further underlines the importance and reputation of the fourth plinth as the most significant public art commission in Britain.

"Both have created imaginative and arresting artworks that fully respond to the uniqueness of their location and I can't wait to see their sculptures in Trafalgar Square in 2012 and 2013."

Moira Sinclair, the London executive director of Arts Council England, said: "The fourth plinth continues to provide a wonderful platform, creating a shared moment amid the hustle of city life for thousands of Londoners and visitors alike to be intrigued, to think about their environment afresh and to experience the very best of contemporary art.

"We are pleased to continue our partnership with the mayor in recognition of the value we all place on the role of the arts in London and we offer our congratulations to Elmgreen & Dragset and Katharina Fritsch – worthy winning commissions in what is now recognised as a world class arts programme."

The fourth plinth programme, funded by the mayor of London with support from Arts Council England, selects new artworks for the vacant plinth.

A key element is to involve the public in a debate about contemporary art in public spaces. About 17,000 people commented on the shortlisted proposals at an exhibition of the proposals at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Trafalgar Square last year and via the programme's website. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 09 2010

Why I still can't stand the fourth plinth | Jonathan Jones

The fatuous nature of the Trafalgar Square contest has been exposed by the fact that even the artists vying for this year's slot seem embarrassed

The fourth plinth has outlasted any excitement it originally caused. It has become a chore. The current exhibition of hopefuls for the next commission in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields has something Mannerist about it. The artists seem gripped by self-consciousness, embarrassed to be even entering this daft contest. Brian Griffiths' giant brick Battenberg is the work of an interesting sculptor who really does not appear to find putting his work on a block in Trafalgar Square at all exhilarating. All the other artists seem similarly indifferent, desperate, or bored. An overwhelming silliness prevails.

For what it's worth, Katharina Kritsch has come up with by far the best idea. Even as a maquette, her blue cockerel has an ineffably surreal quality. It deserves to be chosen – but I still don't much care. Nor will anyone else, once the media hoo-ha and ritual fuss is over with. Does anyone actually care about the ship in a bottle that currently stands there?

The fatuous nature of the whole event has been exposed, surely, by the acclaim for Jeremy Deller's Iraq war relic at the Imperial War Museum. This serious work of art began as a rejected proposal for the fourth plinth. Surely the fact that such a genuinely significant work of art was excluded invalidates any claim that the space matters.

There was one work here, of course, that made a huge "impact". Indeed, Antony Gormley's One and Other is now a blockbuster souvenir book. It certainly claimed the plinth for itself, and probably in a way that dooms all future efforts here. Was it good art? I don't think so, and I don't think it was a very rich or enlightening portrait of Britain either, but that's besides the point. It worked in the setting. By comparison, any object placed on the plinth is going to look tame – unless it is obscene, perhaps, but that is no more likely than the arbiters selecting a savage piece of war art.

The current proposals, overshadowed by Gormley's people, invite a populist campaign that I predict will emerge in 2011 for a new edition of One and Other, to give even more folk the chance to stand on a plinth. Fine. Perhaps then we can forget about the fourth plinth, and move on to more interesting locations and possibilities for public art. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 19 2010

July 19 2010

New fourth plinth shortlist unveiled

Contenders given a month to produce models as they vie to occupy high-profile Trafalgar Square spot in 2012

The fleet of artists vying to replace Yinka Shonibare's giant ship in a bottle on Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth and have their work showcased during the 2012 London Olympics have been announced.

The inspirations for the rival works, one of which will become the country's most prominent contemporary art exhibit throughout the games, will remain secret for another few weeks, though the six proposers – eight artists in all – have been named. They now have a month to produce models, which will be exhibited in August.

The temporary installations on the plinth have become a feature of the capital's cultural life, most famously last summer, when Antony Gormley's One & Other gave 2,400 flesh and blood exhibitionists their chance to occupy the space for an hour each.

"It's that time again," said London's mayor, Boris Johnson, "when the art world braces itself for a spurt of bold ideas for what is surely the premier public art spot in Britain. This is the chance for today's most exciting artists to create something in one of the most historic and traditional settings imaginable. We can only guess what they will come up with, but I have no doubt it will get everyone talking."

Ekow Eshun, director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, who chairs the judging panel, said the fourth plinth installations had established an international reputation. "The commissioning group is excited by this strong shortlist, which represents leading artists from different nations."

The towering Victorian granite plinth was intended, like its neighbours, to carry a solemn bronze general, but was never filled: modern proposals to fill it permanently have ranged from Bomber Harris to the Queen Mother to the present Queen on horseback.

The shortlisted artists are a strikingly cosmopolitan bunch, either born in, or now working in, the US, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Berlin, Dusseldorf, and Guyana. Many are better known for video and sound pieces than large public sculptures.

The artists are: Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, born respectively in the US and Cuba and now based in Puerto Rico, who mix sculpture, sound, video and performance; Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, based in London and Berlin, where their memorial to gay victims of the Nazi regime was unveiled in 2008; Katharina Fritsch, a sculptor born in Germany and mainly working in Dusseldorf, who has represented Germany at the Venice Biennale; Brian Griffiths, born in Stratford upon Avon and now a lecturer at the Royal Academy schools, who is best known for giant sculptures including ships and chariots made from second-hand furniture; Hew Locke, born in Edinburgh but brought up in Guyana, who makes brilliantly coloured but slightly sinister pieces out of scrap material including sequins and plastic flowers; and Mariele Neudecker, born in Germany but working in Bristol, who is renowned for landscapes in glass cases, including two commmissioned by the Met Office of mountains cloaked in fog and snow.

Though the final decision will be taken by the judging panel, the public is also invited to comment and the winner will be announced early next year. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 29 2010

Review: Alexander Melamid and Yinka Shonibare

Phillips de Pury, London SW1; Trafalgar Square, London WC2

Komar and Melamid – those great Russian satirists – are back! Or, at least, one half of the duo has returned. For decades, they conspired to send up official Soviet art with their marvellous parodies of socialist realism in tones of borscht and grey; mock-heroic portraits of bureaucrats and commissars; visions of the Kremlin kissed by glowing sun. Until the police bulldozed their famous "unofficial" art show in 1974, whereupon they decamped and continued in the west.

In America, they mocked the art world too, establishing a market for paintings that turned out to have been made by trained elephants. They used polling companies to establish the least and most popular traits of art according to country (in China, they liked blue paintings; in America, they preferred winter landscapes) and then worked up the supposedly "ideal" results.

In 2003, they parted after 30 years of more or less humorous projects. Vitaly Komar carried on exhibiting, typically portraits of Stalin tweaking Marx by the nose. Alexander Melamid seemed to disappear underground.

But it turned out that he was working on what might seem to be the least probable of all his subjects thus far, namely American rappers. Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, Kanye West: all submitted to the scrutiny of this Russian star of whom they had probably never heard. There were tales of Melamid being kept waiting in the night while the musicians attended their muse. There were high prices and highly successful shows.

And now there is one in London where you can judge for yourself what is really going on in these works. Oh My God – note the lack of an exclamation mark, ebullient laughter implied but not stated – contains 30 lifesize portraits. Some are of rapper royalty, others depict Russian art dealers and oligarchs, rabbis and priests. Religion is equated with culture and both with power.

But there is also a lifesize bull nosing along beneath a blazing red sky, a painting that apparently represents nothing but hot air and a huge close-up of a horse's arse. The catalogue essay is written by the renowned aesthetician Boris Groys. One therefore proceeds with caution.

At first glance, these portraits recall the kitsch pictures of Stalin, Lenin and co from the early Komar and Melamid days, in that each makes a monument of the subject. The clerics wear their vestments and the rappers too, with their rings, caps and outsize T-shirts. Each is depicted alone, sometimes enthroned, in the same generalised but anonymous space: a backdrop from the theatre perhaps or the grand traditions of painting.

Which is where the first note of comedy comes in – the apparent mismatch of modern money-makers with old master conventions. Each painting is worked up from dark to light, ending with a rich glow in the manner of a Rembrandt. Each has this abstract space – no walls, no place – like a Velázquez. The figures are loosely worked, their spectacles and Rolexes and signet rings glimmering like the jewels in society portraits.

The idea of Melamid as court portraitist to anyone is inherently absurd. The instinct is to assume that he is mocking the rapper's brooding solemnity or the rabbi's know-it-all smile; that the Russian newspaper proprietor (and government economic adviser) Konstantin Remchukov, red-eyed, grinning and wine glass in hand, is some sort of Faust.

The white light of destiny glows behind the businessman. The oligarch chooses to pose like the rapper.

But the paintings are more ambiguous. No matter how bulky a presence, each figure appears peculiarly weightless. And then again, each image feels pressurised, built up with a deep red, the colour of iron ore, that makes very heavy weather of the atmosphere.

And there is a twinkle in the eye of the Maltese priest that Melamid has not put there, just as the rappers appear both morose and yet faintly baffled. The formality remains constant, but with this opposing hint of gleeful personal insight.

The key to this show, as it seems to me, is the sudden appearance of a painting of a statue instead of a living person – a Roman hero carved out of stone, standing in just the same baleful light. The point is that everyone gets identical treatment – the format remains the same whether you're a bull or a bureaucrat.

Melamid suppresses the momentary vitality of his sitters in favour of ceremonial stillness, turning each into an effigy of the same size and proportions. And what is so neat about his parody of official portraiture is that one can easily imagine some of the sitters admiring their own images without irony or any sense that they might be looking at pictorial conventions that run all the way back to Stalin. The ultimate clue, though, is in Melamid's signature: kitsch, florid and running like a comedy punchline across the bottom of each work.

No jokes in Trafalgar Square as the latest fourth plinth project was unveiled last week – except, of course, those cracked by Boris Johnson, who took the words out of every news reporter's account with his puns on messages and bottles. Johnson appeared not to notice, however, the one point that the artist was attempting to make with serious intent. The sails of Yinka Shonibare's replica of Nelson's HMS Victory in a gigantic bottle are cut out of densely patterned – and very recognisably African – fabric: the history of black Africans conjured in the multicultural present.

It is a sweet thing, this quaint sculpture on its plinth. The perspex is delicate, the vessel frail, the fabric looks unexpectedly chintzy in the London light. Beneath it is one of those mock seas made of resin that you see in museums and beneath that the sort of wooden stand on which sportsmen rest their trophies.

Seen from below at a certain angle, the frigate appears to sail on the wild blue of the sky itself. At a distance, it shrinks right back to what it simply is: an updated antique, a piece of familiar British bric-a-brac.

The artist has signed it with a flourish – YS MBE is inscribed on both cork and bottle – and it is absolutely of a piece with his stock in trade, which is to cover mannequins of European folk out of history or art in patently African fabric. You get the visual dissonance immediately. It is where his work begins and ends. And it is quite possibly just what this site requires, with its fast-moving stream of passers-by: an admirable trophy to the nearby admiral on his column and for our island today. It is pertinent, correct, on both a local and national scale.

But scale is the problem. Since it would clearly be dangerous to have a gigantic model of a proper rum bottle projecting out over the edge of the plinth, what you see is more like a little keg or preservative jar. It is, in short, limited by the constraints of the plinth itself. Health and safety have come between art and daring and reduced Shonibare to his own small message. "Our culture is global," as he incontrovertibly stated. "I don't really have more to say." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 26 2010

Letters: Black navy history

It is tremendous that there is now such an extravagantly rigged memorial to Britain's multicultural presence in Trafalgar Square, in Yinka Shonibare's HMS Victory in a bottle (Report, 25 May). In all the commentary on the memorial, however, its full historical resonances have been missed.

The navy in Nelson's time was far from a monoglot, ethnically white force. For instance, the roster on Nelson's own ship showed nine West Indian and one African sailor, and it has been estimated that at the battle of Trafalgar around 20% of the sailors were non-white.

Black figures such as the Cato Street conspirator William Davidson, the early anarchist Robert Wedderburn and the most famous black Briton of the 18th century, Olaudah Equiano, all served in the navy. As Nelson surveys the square, he is now brought face to face with this black presence by a memorial that wonderfully evokes this hidden history.

Dr Alan Rice

University of Central Lancashire © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 25 2010

Do black artists need special treatment?

Segregating artists in the name of 'diversity' does them a disservice – as the complex multicultural narrative behind Yinka Shonibare's fourth plinth artwork demonstrates

Tonight I will be appearing on a panel at Tate Britain discussing multiculturalism in the arts, inspired by the latest fourth plinth commission in Trafalgar Square, Yinka Shonibare's Nelson's Ship In a Bottle. This remarkable artwork reproduces Horatio Nelon's ship, HMS Victory, but with a colourful twist: the sails are made of African batik fabrics, one of Shonibare's signature touches.

Even here there's another twist. As Shonibare has pointed out, the fabrics aren't straightforwardly African: the material is Dutch waxcloth, originally based on Indonesian methods of wax-printing, then exported to Africa in the mid-1800s and slowly established as the cloth of choice for African clothing. Shonibare buys the fabric (which is now largely produced in Manchester and Helmond, in the Netherlands) at Brixton market, a place symbolic of London's position in the global exchange of cultures, ideas and products. Calling himself a "post-colonial hybrid", Shonibare celebrates this element of crossbreeding: "It's the way I view culture – it's an artificial construct," he said in an interview with ArtNews in 2002.

Shonibare's works are a powerful reminder that cultures are almost never "pure", but rather made from a messy entanglement of influences. Delft pottery in Holland, which dominated the European porcelain industry in the 17th century, arose out of trade with Japan, whose oriental designs influenced early designs. Many kilt tartans you see today were designed by English tailors under the rule of Queen Victoria, rather than by Scottish highlanders. Even some of the great thinkers and writers of the western canon were "imported": the Roman playwright, Terence, one of the founding fathers of western drama, was a freed slave from Carthage. St Augustine, philosopher and seminal figure of medieval Christianity, was from modern-day Algeria.

Diversity enables this kind of cultural mixing to take place, for people to hear new ideas and acquire the best of what they see, eat, enjoy and learn. London (along with other international cities such as New York, Singapore, and Berlin) has become a place for people around the world to live, visit, consume and make culture – and, of course, do business. And while we are inevitably drawn to the culture of our upbringing, the migrant experience shows we can also be inspired by new places. Derek Walcott, Caribbean poet and Nobel laureate, famously said: "Something prickles in me when I see the word 'Ashanti', as with the word 'Warwickshire'."

But here's the rub: diversity, when the word is used to describe arts policy, seems to be a different thing altogether. Indeed, by trying to capture the essence of difference, it seems to snuff it out altogether. In this reading, culture is not fluid, but defined in rigid categories. Artists are not artists but black, Asian or minority ethnic – "culturally diverse". There are special publicly-funded bursary schemes for black artists, and targets for funding black-led arts groups. There is even a new MA course at a major art school exclusively for black and minority-ethnic art curators.

Yet what does "black art" mean, if blackness itself is a mixture of cultural influences? If black artists can win major commissions and international acclaim, why do we assume that to be black is always to be marginal, or in need of special support? We have to recognise how diversity initiatives can make black artists feel ghettoised and, as some cultural commentators have argued, bear "the burden of representation". Of course, being culturally different in the past was also to suffer prejudice, but much has changed in the past two decades, and old racist attitudes have declined significantly. Barriers today are largely class-based – income, networks, education. And those affect many white people as well.

The past 20 years, particularly in London, have seen a phenomenal change in the way cultures in Britain live together. Nelson's Ship In a Bottle marks the moment to recognise this shift, and ask again what it means to be part of an ethnic minority in Britain today. We may well be surprised by the answers. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Dry dock

The making and unveiling of Nelson's Ship in a Bottle, the latest art work to occupy the much-coveted spot in Trafalgar Square

Turner blows this boat out of the water

Yinka Shonibare's ship-in-a-bottle expresses ambivalence about British triumphalism. But JMW Turner's painting of the battle of Trafalgar captures the sublime horror of war

HMS Victory is no stranger to art. Nelson's ship has inspired artists (not to mention putters-of-ships-in-bottles) before. As Yinka Shonibare's engaging Trafalgar Square artwork goes on show to the public, perhaps it's time to look back on an earlier representation of this ship.

The battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805, took place in an age addicted to history paintings. The 18th century saw history as the highest theme for art – grand historical narratives were the summit of serious painting. The French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon and the eruption of war across Europe gave artists a living flow of new history. In 1822, George IV challenged JMW Turner to take on Britain's proudest moment, and to paint the great sea battles of Trafalgar.

In Turner's picture, HMS Victory is at the very heart of a terrifying and awe-inspiring scene. The massive wooden wall of this immense war ship will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has seen the surviving Victory in Portsmouth, where Turner had detailed sketches made to supplement his own drawings of Nelson's ship done in 1805. In the bottle on the fourth plinth, the Victory seems slight and flimsy: in Turner's painting, you feel its mass and its power. But it is vulnerable. Masts are toppling, sails ripped to shreds. Nelson led from the front, and died on his flagship's deck.

But Turner does not concentrate on Nelson's sacrifice – that had already commemorated by Benjamin West in his popular 1806 painting The Death of Nelson. Instead, Turner concentrates on the suffering of ordinary sailors and soldiers who cling to wreckage in the foreground. The sea has almost vanished under a tide of human bodies: a proud flag bears witness to their readiness to die for their country. Above, smoke mingles with the clouds, and broken ships tower and totter. It is a moment of sublime spectacle and bloody horror.

British artists of the Napoleonic wars were influenced by Leonardo da Vinci's essay on how to paint a battle, which was translated into English at the start of the 19th century by JF Rigaud. In this powerful passage in his notebooks, Leonardo says the painter of a battle should begin by showing the smoke of the guns, a rich, atmospheric visual theme. For artists painting sea battles in the Regency period, that was fascinating advice. Turner sets out to paint the smoke of war more hauntingly than his rival Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, a stage painter who turned his hand to battle scenes. In fact, Turner's Trafalgar was commissioned as a pendant to de Loutherbourg's The Battle of the First of June, 1794.

Both paintings show the suffering of a sea battle amid the smoke. It is Turner's troubling vision of war that clings at your mind. If previous fourth plinth unveilings are anything to go by, coverage of Nelson's Ship in a Bottle this week will tend to assume that no artist ever before depicted HMS Victory with any ambivalence. But Turner's painting of its finest hour is by no means a simple patriotic picture. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 24 2010

Yinka Shonibare celebrates Victory

Giant ship in bottle follows Antony Gormley people's art under Nelson's eye in central London landmark

The previous commission for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square was Antony Gormley's One and Other, which allowed 2,400 people to spend an hour perched high above Landseer's bronze lions.

The daily dramas – sometimes moving, sometimes buttock-clenchingly embarrassing – enacted by members of the public became such a part of London life last summer that when Yinka Shonibare's giant ship in a 5m-long bottle was unveiled this morning it was almost anti climactic.

There was no singing, no dancing, no moving parts: just a bottled replica of Nelson's flagship HMS Victory, its multi-coloured sails billowing as if in a stiff breeze.

The unveiling of the sculpture allowed the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, the opportunity to show that, in the distant past, he might have read Swallows and Amazons. "Pull on the mainsail!" he cried, with rather more enthusiasm than nautical accuracy as the fabric cover failed to come off at first tug.

He also displayed his mastery of the pun. "What was the essential reason why Nelson was able to defeat the Franco-Spanish fleet? What quality did he possess that enabled him to rout the enemy fleet, establish mastery of the seas and create the conditions for the 1807 act abolishing the transatlantic slave trade? ... It was bottle, ladies and gentlemen. And it has taken an artist of Yinka's imagination to show how much bottle Nelson had."

Shonibare told the crowd: "I know what you're going to ask: you're going to ask how did you get the ship in there. Well, I'm not going to tell you."

He and his team consulted the keeper of HMS Victory, Peter Goodwin, to make the replica as accurate a representation as possible of the ship on which Nelson died at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

The sails are a departure. Shonibare said: "We think of these 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."

London-born, Nigeria-raised Shonibare – who invariably refers to himself as "Yinka Shonibare MBE" – is known for his research into Britain's imperial past, often using the textiles associated with Africa as a metaphor in his investigations of colonialism.

He said: "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."

Reaction from people in Trafalgar Square was generally upbeat. John Loughrey, of Wandsworth, south London, said: "I like the fact that it celebrates multiculturalism, there's no prejudice here."

Penny Jones, a leadership and management coach, said it was "more interesting" than Gormley's plinth work, though she had hoped it would be "a bit bigger".

Edith Muller, from Bonn, Germany, liked "the colour, the idea, the look". She said: "The idea is very British. The whole place [Trafalgar Square] is about celebrating victory, but this doesn't offend people."

HMS Victory is still a commissioned warship, and as such has its commanding officer – a position held by Lieutenant Commander John Scivier from 2006-08.

Reviewing the sculpture with a seadog's eye, he said: "The modelling is brilliant; Yinka has done a lot of research. Nelson would be extremely proud. The sculpture epitomises the multi-ethnic nature of London, which was partly brought about by the admirals of that day."

Is Shonibare's ship seaworthy? "Probably a little bit more seaworthy than the real HMS Victory."

Additional reporting: Glenn McMahon © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Message in a bottle

The scale model of Nelson's HMS Victory that has washed up in Trafalgar Square brings out the sailing pond admiral in me – but its postcolonial connotations are worth pondering too

Nelson on his column looks distant and far away. Yinka Shonibare's Nelson's Ship in a Bottle, which has fetched up on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, looks delicate and small in its clear plastic bottle, stopped by an oversized cork and sealed with wax. Less a sculpture than a symbol, it is almost kitsch, and mounted on a vaguely nautical wooden stand whose portholes are actually air vents, whose hidden whirring fans prevent the whole thing from steaming up with condensation – though I rather like the idea of the ship looming in a bottled fog. Shonibare's work is the sort of thing one might come across in a coastal shopping mall, and it sits on the plinth as though on a mantelpiece. I suppose I oughtn't to like it; but I do, very much. It brings out the little boy and the sailing pond admiral in me. Perhaps it appeals to a rather conservative sort of artistic taste, like Jeff Koons's giant, flower-covered puppy, which stands outside the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao (and which has led locals to dub the museum "the doghouse"). But then I'm fond of the mutt too.

Shonibare's Victory aims for seafaring accuracy, though those bright batik-print sails would have been unwise should Nelson have tried to hide from the enemy. Nor is Nelson recorded as having said: "Pimp my Victory." But for all its seeming obviousness and disconcerting, almost camp, appeal, the latest fourth plinth commission does manage to celebrate both Nelson's success at Trafalgar and the postcolonial multi-ethnic mix and mingle of Britain today. It is an ironical corrective to Rule Britannia patriotism, as is the artist's insistence on using his MBE, which is printed on the wax seal alongside his name (the British-born Nigerian artist was awarded the title in 2004). But the thing about ships in bottles is that they're not sailing anywhere. Perhaps this is a further symbol of Britain today: a message no one wants to read. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Nelson's ship sets sail – in a bottle

Exclusive images of Yinka Shonibare's giant sculpture of HMS Victory, unveiled today in Trafalgar Square

May 15 2010

Yinka Shonibare

Yinka Shonibare's recreation of Nelson's ship HMS Victory will soon be unveiled on Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth. Here, he tells Rachel Cooke about his fascination with the British establishment

Yinka Shonibare isn't nervous about how the critics will respond to his commission for Trafalgar Square's famously empty fourth plinth. What would be the point? The ship is in the bottle: there's no going back now. And how, exactly, did it get into the bottle? He grins, gleefully. "I'm not saying." Was it perhaps a hinged, fold-up vessel, one he could unfurl inside the bottle inside using those mechanical arms that park keepers use to pick up autumn leaves? He shakes his head. Or maybe the bottle's neck is sufficiently wide that he was able to slither in and out at will? "I've told you: I can't say. It's a secret." All he will reveal is that the bottle itself is not made entirely of glass (it's some kind of polymer blend); that it was manufactured, not in Britain, but elsewhere in Europe; and that a wax seal on its side will read: "YSMBE" (his initials, followed by the honour he received from the Queen in 2005). Oh, yes, and there will be a row of Union flags along its prow.

From the moment the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group wrote to him three years ago, asking him please to submit a proposal, Shonibare knew in his gut what he wanted to stick on London's highest-profile site for sculpture. "It's a huge honour to do something for Trafalgar Square," he says. "And it seemed obvious to do a work that was connected to the square in some way. I'm surprised no one has done that before. I wanted to do a serious thing for a serious space, but I also wanted it to be exciting, magical, and playful." His big idea was Nelson's Ship in a Bottle, a large-scale model of Horatio Nelson's ship, HMS Victory, from which he commanded the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The twist in the tail, however, is that this ship's sails would be made of Dutch wax, the brightly coloured African fabric that is Shonibare's trademark. "Nelson's victory freed up the seas for the British, and that led, in turn, to the building of the British Empire. But in a way, his victory also created the London we know today: an exciting, diverse, multicultural city." So his work is intended to be celebratory rather than critical? "Both. I want to make people think. I love London. I don't know any city like it. It has a unique vibe. Maybe this is just a monument to live, and let live."

Shonibare, an unexpectedly willowy man in a spiffing powder-blue jacket, is used to attention. His work has been shown in every major gallery in London (not to mention the Louvre in Paris, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York), and in 2004, he was shortlisted for the Turner prize. But still, the plinth commission is different. "The Turner was quite full-on. I'm a winner, not a loser, and I hated not winning. It irritated me, it annoyed me. But you move on. I was already collected, I was already making money; the Turner didn't change anything. But then came the plinth, and that was a huge compensation, and it already feels bigger than anything else. The work will be there for 18 months. So many people will see it." Where is it now? We are in Shonibare's studio in London Fields, Hackney, the smaller of two premises in which he works, and all I can see is the maquette he made when he submitted his original proposal. "It's somewhere else," he says. His face is a picture of innocence, lightly tinged with mischief.

Although he works in different media – painting, sculpture, film and photography – Shonibare's work has followed an unusually clear trajectory since he left Goldsmiths in 1991. As a student, he had been busy making work about perestroika until, one day, a tutor asked him why he didn't think about African art instead. Intrigued by the idea that he should, as a person with a Nigerian background, be expected to make only "African art", Shonibare began considering stereotypes and the issue of "authenticity". His research took him first to the Museum of Mankind and then to Brixton market. He discovered that the exuberant batik that goes by the name of Dutch wax was not, in fact, African; originally, it was Indonesian. Dutch colonialists, hoping to make a profit by selling it, had set out to manufacture the cloth commercially in the Netherlands. When their venture failed, they palmed off the surplus on west African markets, where it somehow became, over time, a kind of national costume for millions of Africans: a statement, in the 20th century, of their post-colonial independence.

Ever since, Shonibare has used the fabric in his art, with dizzying results. Initially, he began mocking up entire Victorian rooms, except their chaises longues were covered, not in velvet and silk chintz, but in Dutch wax. Emboldened by the success of these experiments, he then began using the cloth in his responses to iconic 18th-century paintings, such as Thomas Gainsborough's Mr and Mrs Andrews, and Henry Raeburn's Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch. In Shonibare's Mr and Mrs Andrews Without Their Heads (1998), and in Reverend on Ice (2005), headless life-sized mannequins recreate the poses of the subjects of the original paintings, only their clothes are fashioned from Dutch wax. These installations and sculptures are provocative, of course, but they are funny, too. "Yes, Reverend on Ice is funny," says Shonibare. "I wouldn't have made it otherwise. It's a parody: it's two fingers to the establishment. I do think Raeburn's painting is beautiful, but perhaps in a way that other people don't. I see a dark history behind its opulence. I think: who had to be enslaved in order for you to be able to afford a portrait painter? So it's gallows humour, too."

His work, he believes, reflects his ambivalent attitude towards the establishment, acknowledging the perversity that, sometimes, a person can find something both abhorrent and deeply attractive. In a series of photographs called Diary of a Victorian Dandy (1998), he presents himself as the frock-coat-wearing hero, playing billiards, lying abed attended by half a dozen servants, or posturing before mustachioed types in his library. "When I think of that era, I think about domination and repression. But I also admire things about it. I enjoyed dressing up in those clothes. I don't deny that. It's the same with my MBE: I love it."

Is he joking? "Honestly! For one thing, there is no British Empire. It's finished." There's still Gibraltar, I say. He laughs. "Also, I have a whole list of contradictions. Just because I'm a black artist, I don't want to have to stand on a soap box all the time. I admire the Queen; I love the royal family. A lot of people will think I don't really mean that. But I do. The establishment is fascinating – the idea that, thanks to an accident of birth, your whole life is laid out for you. The only thing is that I don't know my place. I'm not at all a good subject in that sense."

Shonibare was born in London in 1962, but moved with his family back to Lagos when he was three. He comes from a wealthy, middle-class background: his father was a successful lawyer; his brothers are a surgeon and a banker, his sister is a dentist. It would be something of an understatement to say that his parents were appalled when he started talking about wanting to be an artist. "I was a freak! Success is so important in Nigeria. When you're some young, tramp artist, you're considered a drop-out. During the early part of my career, I was always phoning home for money. My father would say: 'When are you going to grow up?' I was on something like £5,000 a year. I wanted a deposit so I could buy a house. I got the deposit, but, oh my goodness, the lecture!" These days, his family's attitude is rather different. "Too bad my father didn't live to see me get the MBE. He would have loved that – though it's ironic that I got it by being subversive, by being the opposite of what he wanted me to be. But [before he died] I was invited to Windsor Castle for a party, and he was so excited. I heard him on the phone saying: 'Yeah, I encouraged him to go to Goldsmiths.'"

After school in Lagos, there followed a stint at a British boarding school ("a Nigerian middle-class thing; I hated it – it was cold, and all the food was boiled, no spices") after which he enrolled at the Wimbledon School of Art. Two weeks later, however, he fell ill; a virus in his spine left him completely paralysed. "It took me three years to recover. I had to learn to walk again. At first, my mum looked after me. Then I moved to a rehab centre. It was extremely isolating. But as soon as I was back at art school [he went to Byam Shaw and then, for his MA, Goldsmiths, where his contemporaries included the Wilson twins and Matthew Collings] I started winning awards. That encouraged me. I thought: OK, I have a disability, but people can judge me by my work. It's about what I can do. In that sense, art has been like a life support system for me." Today, he walks with a stick, and his body is slightly curved. But he suffers no pain. "I make sure I keep mobile, I don't let myself get too stiff. You're only noticing because you're meeting me for the first time."

After Goldsmith's, with its notoriously critical tutors – "it's that military thing; they destroy you completely and then they rebuild you" – Shonibare found himself frozen for about two years, "unable to produce anything". In 1997, however, his work was included in Charles Saatchi's infamous Sensation show at the Royal Academy. After this, there was no stopping him. "I've been lucky. Audience response has always been good, and every time I've done a show, it has led to invitations to do three more." What role, if any, does he think his colour has played in his career? "I'd be lying if I said I had suffered discrimination, though I'm not naive enough to think it doesn't exist. But in any case, I love a challenge, so if you don't think much of me, I will do things to make you consider me more highly." What about positive discrimination? "People do that only once. They invite you, and if you produce crap they won't invite you again, full stop." On a blackboard, his schedule for the next 12 months is already chalked up. It includes shows in Monaco and Israel, in Spain and in Australia. He could not, he says, be busier if he tried.

I wonder if he finds conversations about multiculturalism tiresome, for all that his work invites them. I wouldn't blame him if he did. Shonibare shrugs. "Culture has a role to play. In a diverse society people have to find a way of being together, and that can only come from understanding other cultures. Otherwise, you're just fighting for space. But I'm from London, now. I've been here for 30 years. In Lagos, I would feel like a foreigner. The city has had such an impact on my work. If I'd lived somewhere else, I'm certain that my career would have evolved very differently. And I love it. I love what you could call 'vindaloo Britishness'. It's a mixed-up thing. You hear it in British music, and you taste it in British food. This purity notion is nonsense, and I cherish that." His trademark Dutch wax is, he says, a metaphor for interdependence and thus, perhaps, a metaphor for city life as well. We all pinch from one another. We take what we like, and in doing so, we are, whether we like it or not, joined together in one great and vibrant web.

Nelson's Ship in a Bottle will be unveiled in Trafalgar Square on 24 May © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 11 2010

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. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 04 2010

Not everyone is an artist

Interactive art is gaining ground – but whether it's Spencer Tunick's nudes or Antony Gormley's plinth, no masterpiece was ever created by committee

The rise of interactive art seems to make sense in our digital age. It seems only right that art, too, should twitter. And so the noughties saw the rise of art that involves real people – as many of them as possible. Spencer Tunick and Antony Gormley led the way in persuading volunteers to strip off or be cast in plaster, or stand on a plinth and be webcammed.

Some forms of interactivity are obviously good for art, as they are good for society. The more democratically ideas and information are shared, the more accessible art will be. Sites that allow artists to promote themselves without going through the rituals of the art world are great because for every dud who gets publicity through alternative channels, there is also the chance of raw genius sidestepping the institutions that force art and artists to conform to fashion and supposed good taste. In theory.

So democracy is great – except when it shapes the actual work of art. I do not believe a great work of art has ever been created by communal consensus, let alone by multiple editors. There will never be a wiki-masterpiece. This is because art, if it has any value at all, is the product of deep and often rationally incommunicable perceptions, and to try and explain or share those perceptions in a communally created artwork will negotiate and re-edit them to banality.

But, I hear you roar, there are obvious objections to that claim. What about devised theatre and the films of Mike Leigh? But the reason Leigh's pieces work so well is that talented actors are doing the interaction: what you are seeing is not a democratic free-for-all but an elite. Good art is the product of talent. All the forces in our culture that weaken our belief in talent deny this fundamental fact, but it always returns to haunt us.

Participatory art is a denial of talent. It panders to a cosy lie, that everyone is equally able to create worthwhile art. What chance have we of nurturing those rare wonders in our midst, the born artists, if we claim this infantile right to put on a badge that says "artist"? © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 27 2010

Why Britain's best artists leave

How can London be the capital of global art when our celebrity culture makes it such a miserable place for artists to live and work?

Chris Ofili, whose retrospective has just opened at Tate Britain, is just one of the British artists who have chosen to live abroad to get away from the madness of art's celebrity culture – including such serious figures as Tacita Dean and Steve McQueen.

So here's a paradox. Constantly, the media tell us that London is this century's Manhattan or Paris, that Britain is the world's leading art capital. Yet I believe that in Manhattan in the 1960s you would actually have found artists living and working – and if Picasso had fled back to Barcelona, the Musée Picasso wouldn't have been in Paris. Art capitals are traditionally places where artists thrive. But what kind of artist really thrives on our brand of instant celebrity?

As a critic, you forget what celebrity means. It's seeing people coo over someone who seems very ordinary to me, such as Grayson Perry – someone I've sometimes been rude about, sometimes praised, but certainly never mistaken for the kind of artist I, personally, would go weak at the knees to meet.

Celebrity is such a small thing compared with real fame. For me, a famous artist is one whose works have secured them a true place in art history, whose talent is mysterious and personality elusive. Jasper Johns is famous; Perry is a celebrity.

A celebrity is someone who is "like us" – just watch all those talent shows on TV – which by definition limits their genius. A celebrity, to have democratic appeal, really has to be a bit second rung, a bit ordinary. It's quite a contradiction. You have to catch the eye and yet you can't intimidate people with supreme abilities.

The purest expression of modern Britain's celebrity art culture, and its logical conclusion, was Antony Gormley's participatory artwork on the Fourth Plinth. Here was the mediocrity of the celebrity culture made monumental – everyone an artist, everyone a star, not a trace of imagination in sight.

No wonder the real artists run for their lives. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 13 2009

The worst fourth plinth yet?

Overblown and militaristic, this temporary memorial in Trafalgar Square represents everything the Few were fighting against

It seemed inappropriate last week, with millions remembering the wars of the twentieth century, to say this. But I'm not sure I can hold off any longer. The statue of Battle of Britain hero Sir Keith Park currently occupying the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square is an inane and empty image that has no claims on anyone's attention.

I seem to be fated to wade into the silly world of the plinth. Every time I think I'm out, it pulls me back in. By some bizarre chance, I happened to witness part of the unveiling ceremony of this sculpture a couple of weeks ago. A crowd stood in darkening weather, watching a giant screen while the statue towered above them wrapped in a silk shroud. Covered up like that, it resembled something from a painting by Giorgio de Chirico.

It was more interesting than the unveiled version, which is now on view for all to ignore. It proves size isn't everything. The problem of the plinth's scale has been solved by inflating the statue so what stands there to commemorate the Battle of Britain is a colossus. It is singularly inappropriate because the size of the figure, combined with its military nature, evokes not the Few, but everything they were battling against. It's a fascist icon up there, brooding over the heart of London.

Maybe it's unfair to interpret something so hackneyed and drab as art. At least this lamentable sculpture puts the idiocy of the know-nothing artistic conservatives into full public view. You may think much of contemporary art is shallow; you may wish for something deeper, more emotional, more imaginative. But aesthetic regression is not the answer. The simplistic call for figurative art is just lazy-minded. Modern art was called into being by modern life, and as we hurtle into the future there is no sign of its pertinence diminishing.

Britain's artistic conversation remains depressingly slight, endlessly fixated on a false confrontation of ancients and moderns, "proper" and "conceptual" art. No meaningful art of our time fits easily into those polarities. Nothing is served by reaffirming them. This statue is a monument to saloon-bar fools. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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