From a flying bull to the emperor's old clothes: the cream of the Fourth Plinth shortlist reviewed 

4
Fouth Plinth
Models for Fourth Plinth sculptures by Michael Rakowitz, Heather Phillipson and Damian Ortega Credit: James O Jenkins/Michael Rakowitz

A massive dollop of whipped cream with a “drone” on top, and a destroyed Iraqi sculpture reconfigured in old tins and a set of the emperor’s new clothes – claiming to be the emperors old clothes – are among the contenders for the next two commissions for Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth.

Since its inception in 1999, the Fourth Plinth has proved perhaps Britain’s most successful public art project, putting cutting-edge art works on an empty plinth, originally intended for a statue of William IV, bang in front of the National Gallery. From Katharina Fritsch’s Hahn/Cock, an enormous blue cockerel, to Antony Gormley’s One & Other, in which members of the public were invited to perform on top of the plinth, the chosen works have generated endless – largely good-natured – controversy, hilarity and conjecture, with several of the works already established in the capital’s folk memory.

If none of the five contending works unveiled yesterday morning, and on show as models in the National Gallery’s basement, look likely to arouse huge controversy, each makes a strong response to the possibility of public sculpture, while touching – if sometimes very tangentially – on the great issues of our time.

Indian artist Shuddha Sengupta poses with his sculpture 'The Emperor's Old Clothes'  Credit: Will Oliver/EPA

Delhi’s Raqs Collective plays with the notion of the emperor’s new clothes, an idea frequently invoked to lampoon the pretentiousness of contemporary art: Emperor’s Old Clothes is a set of regal robes rendered larger than life size, in white fibre-glass, and left empty. Where traditional statues, of the sort seen elsewhere in the square, reinforce the presence of power, in this work we’re offered a ghostly sense of absence or departure.

Half-Iraqi American artist Michael Rakowitz looks at a more distant power-figure, an ancient Assyrian image of a winged bull, destroyed by Isis at Iraq’s Mosul Museum in 2015. Where the original was carved in marble, Rakowitz's The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist recreates it in recycled date syrup cans, relics of a once proud Iraqi industry destroyed, like the bull, by war. The artists sees his work as a kind of “refugee or ghost” that is “hoping one day to return to Iraq”.

 Michael Rakowitz with a model of his artwork 'The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist' Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA

In contrast, High Way by Mexico’s Damian Ortega appears defiantly flippant: a Volkswagen camper van with a vertiginous arrangement of scaffolding, oil drums and a step ladder balanced on top. A sort of street-level riposte to the grandeur of the location, it’s hardly hugely original, but neatly and wittily done.

With four of the five artists hailing from outside Britain, there’s no sign of the closing of cultural borders here, though the only British contender, Heather Phillipson, provides one of the strongest works in THE END, a colossal mound of whipped cream – to be realised in fibreglass and steel – that appears about to collapse over the side of the plinth. There’s a cherry on the top, an enormous fly alighted on the side, and a whirling, illuminated contraption, which turns out to be a drone, sending out simultaneous video pictures of Trafalgar Square, which you can pick up on your mobile phone. Themes of global ennui, surveillance and corporate hubris are hinted at on a gigantic cartoon scale.

Heather Phillipson poses for photographs in front of her sculpture 'The End'  Credit: Will Oliver/EPA

Pakistani artist Huma Bhaba’s Untitled is the most enigmatic of the proposed works: an enormous hand-carved female figure in dark-brown cork, with a sort of expressive modernist polystyrene head plonked on top. I rather liked it, precisely because it doesn’t have an easily discernible message, though that fact in itself probably rules it out as a serious contender.

Ortega’s builder’s van is fun, but rather slight, while the Raqs Collective’s empty robe has a spooky, numinous quality in miniature, but might seem a touch obvious rendered on a grand scale. Phillipson’s whipped cream, however, offers a positive sundae of irresistible elements: interactive technology, allusions to current political malaise delivered with a pop art bravura. Rakowitz's reconstructed Daesh-destroyed monument, meanwhile, provides a response to one of the great conflicts of our time which is at once heartfelt and appealingly cheeky.

So, I see this as proving a likely victory for the whipped cream and the Assyrian bull – we’re going to be seeing a lot of them. 

Until March 26; admission free; nationalgallery.org.uk. The two winning commissions will be announced March 17. The first will be unveiled in 2018, the second, in 2020. 

 

READ MORE ABOUT: