The Fourth Plinth at Night

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.

The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (2018), Michael Rakowitz’s sculpture for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, London

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.  

The lamassu beneath Nelson’s Column and in front of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square.

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.

Detail showing the date tree motif on the date syrup cans.

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.

Grayson Perry – If I Say So

In his second Reith lecture, called ‘Beating the Bounds’, Grayson Perry takes us on a whistle-stop tour round the parish bounds of contemporary art. This half hour talk delivered in his provocative yet playful style discusses the question – can anything be called art? It is available to listen to at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03dsk4d.

Grayson Perry explains that through the course of the twentieth century the boundaries of art have expanded rapidly from the time of Duchamp (‘Fountain’ 1917, a found, mass produced urinal) to include pretty much anything. A shark in a tank – if I say so. A sleeping Tilda Swinton in a glass box – if I say so. Well, it is art if Damien Hirst and Cornelia Parker say it is. But, Grayson Perry, himself a conceptual artist, suggests that everything is not art and there are boundaries even if they are porous, ill-defined and flexible. In his entertaining lecture he lists a number of markers to consider. For example, who created the work, where is the work situated both in the physical world and the art historical context, why was the work created and what is the audience engagement and response.

blue cockerel
A Blue Cockerel

Fouth Plinth sculpture
Katharina Fritsch’s cockerel on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, London
Art in context.
As with his first lecture he embellishes his points with significant and contemporary examples which are fascinating and often amusing. He wants to make contemporary art more accessible and less intimidating to the non-specialist audiences. A more personal insight into Grayson Perry’s own approach to the process of creation was glimpsed during the brief Q&A at the end of the lecture. A member of the audience enquired about the nature of creativity quoting Picasso saying, “All children are artists, the problem is keeping them artists”. Grayson replied that there were good child artists and bad child artists and credited children with relaxed, spontaneous and free expression, but nevertheless it is creative expression without self-awareness. He suggested that to make art the maker cannot be an innocent. However, the very state of being self-conscious brings pressure. He mused, “I can tell you from personal experience, that, the more successful you become the more pressure there is of self-consciousness, and how I would love to be that little child with a box of Lego bricks again.” He suggests that to be a contemporary artist the artist needs to be aware of art’s history, that art works have both aesthetic and financial value in the art world and that these works have audiences. Furthermore once set free from the artist, audiences will ultimately engage with and respond to these creations subjectively. Of his own response to art Grayson said he is old fashioned and that what is important for him is he can go and see and touch ‘the real thing’.

Below I have selected three images. Each is an example of a ‘type’ mentioned by Grayson. Just glance at these three images out of context and decide which one you think is art. Then click on each for more information, but still be subjective – draw your own conclusion!

Sorry, not really a fair question as they should all be excellent versions of their type and they are not. But speaking subjectively (and that is very subjectively) I think two of the three examples are very nearly the best of their type!