The Fourth Plinth: raising disability issues (part II)

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Following on from his reflection on the issues raised by Marc Quinn’s Fourth Plinth commission, ‘Alison Lapper Pregnant,’ Charles Josefson considers the impact of the first (and so far only) Fourth Plinth piece actually by a disabled artist; Yinka Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle.

Yinka Shonibare: Nelson's Ship in A Bottle

Yinka Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in A Bottle. Photograph: Feggy Art via Flickr. Used under (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Marc Quinn’s sculpture showing Alison Lapper Pregnant sparked passionate, sometimes contentious, discussion. Five years on, shown on the plinth from May 2010 to January 2012, a sculpture by Yinka Shonibare was far less controversial. It was widely praised. Created by a disabled artist, it too placed disability in the national spotlight.
The Fourth Plinth is quintessentially British in its eccentricity. The original intention was for the plinth to carry an equestrian statue of William IV, similar to the one commemorating George III. But the necessary funds were not available, and so, since the Square was opened in 1843, the plinth had remained empty. Belatedly, in 1999, a proposal headed by Prue Leith, the Deputy Chairman of the Royal Society of Arts, was accepted. And so it was agreed that the vacant plinth would be used, temporarily at least, to showcase contemporary sculpture.

Several distinguished artists have taken up the challenge and critics and Londoners alike have enjoyed weighing the merits of each work. Mark Wallinger installed the first piece. His sculpture was a life-size representation of Jesus Christ, an Ecce Homo (Latin for “Behold the Man!”), shown naked but for his loincloth and a barbed-wire crown of thorns. Another Turner Prize winning artist, Rachel Whiteread, created her Monument, a transparent resin cast of the granite plinth itself.

More recently, back in 2013, the then Mayor of London Boris Johnson unveiled a vast, ultramarine farmyard cockerel, made by the German artist Katharina Fritsch. Few works can have elicited so many double entendres as the giant blue Hahn/Cock, which stood as tall as a Routemaster bus. When the next sculpture was unveiled in March 2015, Hans Haake’s skeletal equine bronze, the Booker Prize winning author Howard Jacobson commented, “I’m very pleased the blue cockerel is gone — I enjoyed that joke for a weekend.” The current occupant, Really Good, is a giant bronze “thumps-up” made by David Shrigly.

So far, Yinka Shonibare has been the only disabled artist commissioned for the Fourth Plinth project, creating his sculpture Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle. As the title tells, this 15.4ft long, 7.7ft high sculpture is a 1:30 scale replica of HMS Victory, Admiral Horatio Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, contained within a Perspex bottle with a huge cork. To prevent the sun from fading them, protective coatings were applied to the ship’s sails and a ventilation system with tiny fans was installed to prevent the build-up of condensation. Exuberant and attention-grabbing, the 37 sails are made of richly coloured batik textiles (wax-printed cotton), which are associated with African dress. Shonibare buys his from Brixton market.

At the unveiling of his work, Shonibare explained: “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.”

Shonibare is a celebrated conceptualist artist, and has become internationally renowned for his sculptures of headless figures, which explore issues surrounding Britain’s imperial past, all decked out in vibrant, patterned costumes made from his characteristic batik fabric. Always working with bold colour and satirical humour, his diverse themes include nationality and identity, history and ethnicity, post-colonialism and globalism.

Shonibare is a British artist, who has been linked to the YBA group, since he studied at Goldsmiths College and displayed in the Sensation exhibition, which showed YBA works from the Saatchi Collection at the Royal Academy in 1997. But he also has an African identity. He was the first black artist to receive a Fourth Plinth commission. Born in London in 1962, he was raised in the capital for three years before his parents moved to Lagos, Nigeria, where he stayed until he was 17 years old.

Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle remains on public display in Greenwich, stood permanently outside the Sammy Ofer Wing of the National Maritime Museum. Once its spell on the plinth ended, it was reputedly set to dock in the garden of a South Korean billionaire. However, the ship had caught the public imagination and so many were loathe to see it slip from public view. The Art Fund launched its first appeal for a contemporary work, and this biggest ship in a bottle was secured for the nation. At its second unveiling, Shonibare said: “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 old cliché is that art is a mirror to society. The Fourth Plinth, with its rolling programme of commissions, has proved a microcosm of British contemporary art and therefore of wider British life. It is only right that disabled people should be included. Whether or not he succeeded in his aims, or whether his aims were best chosen, may be moot, but Marc Quinn undoubtedly put the spotlight on disability and raised questions around whether society suitably values its disabled people. With all of his stellar achievements, exhibited at major galleries around the world, Shonibare is the embodiment of what is possible when people do.

Shonibare puts it best:

“If you have a psychological disability and a physical disability you can overcome those. Those things are actually irrelevant, I think your quality is more important, what do you have to offer? Physical disability or psychological disability is not a barrier to success.”

I say, thumbs up to that.