sun 19/01/2020

Powerless Structures, Fig 101, Fourth Plinth | reviews, news & interviews

Powerless Structures, Fig. 101, Fourth Plinth

Powerless Structures, Fig. 101, Fourth Plinth

New sculpture in Trafalgar Square is not quite what it seems

Powerless Structures, Fig. 101, by Scandanavian duo Elmgreen and Dragset

Superficially it's the very picture of innocence. A boy clings to his wooden steed, one hand clutching the neck, the other flying free. Few Fourth Plinth commissions will be more easily co-opted for official public duty. Hope, youth, the exultation of the ordinary: the state will be able to do plenty with this. Already Boris Johnson has tried to make an Olympic mascot of the boy. Joanna Lumley, who unveiled the work earlier today, hoped his gold-plating boded well for the Summer. But as with all the best public art, Elmgreen and Dragset's new sculpture might outwardly bow to its commissioners (the gilt exterior is surely a polite thank you to Louis Vuitton's contributions to the funding pot), but inwardly it's winking at the audience. 

Will public art dare to become any more openly self-critical in this year where the eyes of the world are looking in?

You see this as soon as you get close. Come at the boy from the right and you notice immediately that this is no working class tike. His tum is well fattened. His clothes are well chosen. His shorts have braces. He's made of gold! Or at least appears to be made of gold. One hand holds his rocking horse, while the other forgets its horse-riding duty. It forgets to stretch for balance or fly loosely in the imagined wind. It is instead held aloft comfortably, as if about to wave - a royal wave. And the face? Not one of excitement or surprise - or ordinariness - but of privilege and wealthy imperturbability. This is the blank, blessed face of the Emperors of Ancient Rome. In the mock up that we saw last year the boy looked up and with some trepidation. Now he looks down, content and in control.

Given all this, the formal title of the work - Powerless Structures, Fig 101 - must be a wry joke. I mean how powerless really is this advantaged little male? Surely his ascent to the Fourth Plinth will mean he doesn't remain powerless for long. Yet step away, walk to the edge of the square, and the boy's authority evaporates, the little Lord Fauntleroy disappears, and a carefree infant emerges - an infant at play among adults at war. A sentimental inversion of the fallen hero? A critique of entitlement? Whatever your take, it's a neatly ambiguous piece. It represents our nation's pretend fragility well.

Will public art dare to become any more openly self-critical in this year where the eyes of the world are looking on? Most of the £5.4 million worth of public art schemes currently being unveiled around the country by the Arts Council seem to be on their best and blandest behaviour. This well-aimed foreign salvo might be the closest thing we get to national self-examination in 2012.

Yet walk to the edge of the square ... and a carefree infant emerges - an infant at play among adults at war


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters