Walking through Trafalgar Square in the evening these days is still a noisy and bustling affair, but with all the cleaned buildings and the National Gallery artfully lit, the experience is definitely an improvement from my first memories as a newly arrived student in 1979.
Also, back in 1979 the fourth plinth beneath the towering Nelson’s Column was empty. In fact it had been empty for 150 years until the current series of temporary artworks was begun in 1999. The present sculpture is the twelfth artwork to top the plinth. It is a replica of an Assyrian lamassu statue that was destroyed by ISIS/Daesh at the Mosul museum in 2015. The original had guarded the entrance at the Nergal Gate of Nineveh (near modern day Mosul) from c700 BC.
Lamassus were protective winged deities with the body of a bull or lion and the head of a man. Some of these statues that stood at the gates of ancient Assyrian cities and palaces as symbols of power are nearly three thousand years old.
This particular lamassu has been created by the Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz. He is an artist who, within his creative practice, has been considering peoples and cultures that have been under threat of being deliberately erased, and, to this end he has created counter-monuments such as this lamassu. This piece is one of his series ‘The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist’, a project he began in 2006. His hope is to recreate many of the 7000 cultural objects that have been lost forever. Some of these were looted from the Iraq Museum in 2003, whilst many others were destroyed across the country during the Iraq War.
From the pavement below it isn’t obvious at first glance precisely what this sculpture is comprised of. However, gradually you realise the surface decoration is tin cans. The Lamassu is made from 10,500 empty Iraqi date syrup cans and you can even spot the date tree motifs. Selecting date syrup cans was not a random choice. Of course not, this top decorative layer is informing us about another type of loss as a result of the Iraq War, the loss of one of Iraq’s traditional food export businesses.
Placed on a plinth in Trafalgar Square beneath Admiral Lord Nelson, the lamassu’s style and content is very much a counter to the traditional representation of wars and war heroes as seen with the sandstone Nelson atop his granite column. This lamassu is colourful, transient and recycled, literally made from the remains of everyday food packaging. I think it challenges the hubristic ideas of permanence, stability and the ‘forever’ notion that the stone Nelson monument suggests. Trafalgar Square may not be under water within the next 30 years, but much of a London that even now is a forever changing building site, will probably be looking very different. See London 2050 flood map.