Nelson’s Ship Rolls in for New Trafalgar Square Installation

Trafalgar Square, London. Lord Admiral Nelson looks down from atop his column. He sees the usual: tourists, pigeons, people spray-painted to look like morons… But wait, what’s this? An eerily familiar sight. His own triumphant ship, the HMS Victory, has somehow been captured, shrunken, reupholstered and bottled.

Trafalgar Square’s latest contemporary installation is Yinka Shonibare’s “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle” – 4.7 meters of model replica with batik sails in place of the traditional white. A Turner prize-nominated artist, Shonibare often uses batik prints in his sculptures. Although the fabrics give his installations a decidedly African feel, the artist is quick to point out that, even if these colorful prints have become identified with Africa, their international visibility is a result of trade between the Netherlands and Indonesia during the colonial period.

Nelson's Ship Rolls in for New Trafalgar Square Installation

Yinka Shonibare, "Nelson's Ship in a Bottle", Trafalgar Square, photo by daisybush

The complex weaving of cultural identity is a good analogy for Shonibare’s work, mixing styles, cultures, and periods of history to the point where it becomes hard to decipher. Take, for example, “The Swing (after Fragonard)” (2001), a sculpture based on Fragonard’s famously frivolous painting in which a young woman suggestively kicks off her slipper as she swings on a swing. In Shonibare’s version the eighteenth century costume is recreated in colorful fabrics and contemporary trade marks. The woman, for her part, has no head. Fragonard is all about rococo style and titillating narrative, a powdery looking young woman revealing – gasp – a naked foot. Shonibare’s swing may be less provocative but raises question of excess common to the eighteenth century and the early noughties.

So far, the ship has garnered a lot of positive response – from the appreciation of its element of kitsch to the bold statement of multiculturalism. The choice of a ship in a bottle is a thematic fit in the nautical Trafalgar square, and the plinth carries on it’s modern tradition of linking London’s hardware with the people scurrying around it. Commissioned by the City of London (previously commissioned by the RSA between 1999 and 2001), the Fourth Plinth project sits somewhere between public monument and public art, aiming to reflect the city and the nation, as well as appear aesthetically and conceptually relevant.

Shonibare is the seventh contemporary artist to win the commission to ornament the Fourth Plinth, which was originally designed to hold a statue of King William IV, and his ship is flanked at the three other corners by King George IV, and military men Henry Havelock and Charles James Napier.

Other memorable Fourth Plinth moments include:

Rachel Whiteread, who made it her trademark to create sculptures out of negative space, simply made a cast of the plinth itself. Cast in transparent resin Monument” was calm and symmetrical, minimal yet thought-provoking.

A rogue David Beckham appeared on the plinth during the 2002 World Cup. Madame Tussauds, the famous waxworks museum, put the model of the former England football captain up as a publicity stunt. Waxy Beckham’s outdoor adventure was short-lived as he was up there without official permission. Red card.

Nelson's Ship Rolls in for New Trafalgar Square Installation

Marc Quinn, "Alison Lapper Pregnant", Trafalgar Square, 2005 - 2007, photo by Morgaine

Marc Quinn’s “Alison Lapper Pregnant” was a large sculpture of a pregnant disabled woman. In a square dedicated to military heroes, Lapper was a refreshingly arresting image of another form of heroism.

Last year the Fourth Plinth commission was won by Antony Gormley, who used it as a platform for public performance, starring none other than, the public themselves. “One and Other” lasted 100 days and saw 2 400 selected performers, who used their half an hour for all sorts of self promotion, good causes, campaigns and lunacy. The whole project is documented here. Hats off the the Godzilla impersonator.

Caroline Rossiter is a writer based in Paris, her work has appeared in European Comic Art and she blogs about art in Paris at more


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