mon 17/06/2024

Gift Horse, Fourth Plinth | reviews, news & interviews

Gift Horse, Fourth Plinth

Gift Horse, Fourth Plinth

An equine skeleton with connections to the City takes up residence in Trafalgar Square

Gift Horse: a fitting work for an age of austerity?Photo: AFP

The unveiling of the Fourth Plinth has, since his election to office, been an opportunity for Mayor Boris Johnson to work the press pen with a comic turn. So, the commission, sponsored by the mayoral office, gets a media-chummy spokesperson whose art critiques add a note of gaiety to proceedings, even if they’re self-evidently at odds with what the artist had in mind. See them as an ongoing election campaign. 

Hans Haacke’s Gift Horse, which was unveiled yesterday, is a larger than life-size bronze skeleton of a horse, modelled on an anatomic etching by George Stubbs, the 18th-century English artist of thoroughbreds whose majestic Whistlejacket hangs in the National Gallery just behind it.

It might still be standing, but this horse is well past flogging

Tied to the foreleg of Haacke’s horse, which the ghastly carcass proffers to passersby as if gift-wrapped, is an LED ribbon displaying the live ticker for the London Stock Exchange. The work clearly isn’t, as Boris jested in a somewhat baroque speech, about regeneration under the Tory coalition ho ho, but that’s hardly what one would expect from an artist known for his institutional critiques, one who has consistently highlighted the relationship between art, money and power and set about exposing the nefarious dealings of the ruling cultural institutions that determine an art work’s cultural worth. 

Institutional critiques can be a little dry and hermetic, but we can all get what Haacke is on about in this far more public arena. Gift Horse is a fitting work for the age of austerity, and one which signals the role of the bankers in bringing us to our knees. It is a work of striking wit and irony, even if the ironies seem a little leaden and whose layers are not in the least opaque. That it has been erected in a square that celebrates Empire, with Francis Chantrey’s virile George IV mounted on a powerful horse, offers us a stark contrast between the pomp of then and the pimped of now – a contrast that depicts UK plc as a knackered institute at the mercy of the City. It might still be standing, but this horse is well past flogging.

Gift Horse (detail)But even given the location, there is nothing here that’s really politically subversive. It all feels rather jolly and safe ­– too generalised in its attack to feel even mildly piquant, as some of Haacke’s earlier works have certainly been (exposing the political and financial interests of museum trustees with a project in situ was one). After all, even politicians won’t admit to loving bankers. Which leads us to ask, “what might a truly subversive political work for such a context actually look like?” An effigy of a grinning George Osborne riding his mighty steed like some wild horseman of the apocalypse, perhaps? Or perhaps a sculptural tableau of that notorious Bullingdon Club photo from the class of ’86, which has long been banned from media use. That, surely, would wipe the grin off Boris’s face.

Fisun Güner on Twitter

That it has been erected in a square that celebrates Empire, offers us a stark contrast between the pomp of then and the pimped of now

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