Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Yinka Shonibare’s Fourth Plinth, review

Yinka Shonibare’s work of art on Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth sits high overlooking the square, joyful and enchanting.

It feels like a long time since we’ve had a substantial work of art on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth, but boy was it worth the wait for Yinka Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle.
Doing just what it says in the title, the sculpture consists of a perfect replica of Nelson’s HMS Victory inside a giant Perspex bottle. Fully rigged with 31 hand-stitched canvas sails set as they were on the day of the Battle of Trafalgar, the oak, hardwood and brass model is minutely detailed, right down to 80 tiny cannon and miniature lifeboats, varying from the original only in the artist’s use of his trademark African textiles instead of plain canvas for the billowing sails.
Shonibare’s last act was to cork the bottle, seal it with red wax imprinted with his initials, a giant knick-knack ready for display on the nation’s very own whatnot.
There it sits, high up on the plinth overlooking the square, joyful and enchanting, an object of delight for adults and children alike. But because the plinth is so high, it is difficult to see it close to. Even if you walk up the short flight of steps to view it from the balustrade in front of the National Gallery, you’re still too far away to take in the details.
So by far the best thing is to forget the detail and view the work from across the square, where suddenly you can see the vessel intact, from prow to stern, as though in full sail on the high seas.
Shonibare is much too thoughtful an artist for this to have been a miscalculation. I’m guessing that he determined the ship’s scale by calculating the size of an ordinary ship-in-a bottle in proportion to the height of a grown man, then adjusted the proportion to the height of Nelson’s Column (which is, after all, the reason why the work is in Trafalgar Square in the first place).
In his artist’s statement, Shonibare says that the use of African textile patterns refers to “the legacy of British colonialism and its expansion in trade and Empire, made possible through the freedom on the seas and new trade routes that Nelson’s victory provided”.
He asks us to consider the relationship between Nelson’s “historic victory and the multicultural society we have in Britain today”.
Now, there are so many dodgy ideas packed into those two short sentences that I’m not going to bore you by entering into a kind of futile, politically correct debate that became so fashionable about 20 years ago.
Whatever else it may be, Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle is an exhilarating work of art that needs no excuse for raising our spirits in the gloomy days we’re living through right now.

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