Looking up at the Gift Horse skeleton sculpture by Hans Haake

Gift Horse by Hans Haake on the Fourth Plinth: could Scotland risk such public art?

I looked a Gift Horse in the mouth. Or, to be more accurate, I joined the tourists in Trafalgar Square snapping pictures of the latest sculpture occupying the Fourth Plinth. After a day in the Houses of Parliament the Tory ‘long term economic plan’ sprang to mind as I admired the skeleton; bronze bones stark and bold against a cold spring sky.

This first appeared in Sceptical Scot, a new online magazine asking awkward questions about life in Scotland. 

Boris Johnson sees it differently. Unveiling the 13 ft statue by Hans Haacke, he chose to make light of the moment, as reported in the Guardian: “There will be those who say that this undeniably underfed beast … is a symbol of the excessive pursuit of austerity and the [chancellor] George-Osborne-diet approach to life. But I say absolutely not.”

Stereotypical Boris. But fair play to the Mayor of London. The Fourth Plinth, arguably the most interesting public art space in London, is funded by the mayor and supported by Arts Council England, providing a rolling programme of work by international artists which brings new focus to civic art and, sometimes, the political culture around it.

Boris might have chosen to veto this particular commission. Hans Haacke, a German-born artist living in Manhattan, has a reputation for deliberately provocative work. Indeed the 78-year-old thought it a ‘good joke’ to be asked to submit an application at all and did not expect his idea to be accepted. Back home in Manhattan any work that cast aspersions on Wall Street would be given short shrift by the mayor.

Having read the Guardian review, I wanted to see it for myself and (though my view was undeniably skewed by a day in Westminster) found it impossible not to make a connection between politics and the power of the market. A riderless dead horse – beautifully executed – makes mockery of the classical symbols of victory on neighbouring plinths. The big shock is the foreleg tied with wicked, winking LED alive with London stock exchange prices running in real time.

Trying to capture the experience with my mobile phone, I find questions running through my mind. Could Scotland’s capital support a ‘fourth plinth’? Where would it be? Who would fund it? Would the Scottish Government be confident enough to allow it? And would Scottish artists feel free to question Scottish Government or Scottishness?

Where to place Scotland’s ‘fourth plinth’?

Location is vital, it sets the scene and provides the juxtaposition for the artist to invite contemplation, argument and interaction. “You need a situation where the work and the place short-circuit,” says Maurizio Cattelan whose L.O.V.E places a giant hand raising a middle finger with tantalising ambiguity outside the Milan Stock Exchange.

A close up of the powerful statue, a hand with amputated fingers apart from the middle one raised in defiance

L.O.V.E. by Maurizio Cattelan | Image: Paolo Ferrarini

Does Edinburgh offer that kind of situation? During the Arab Spring, I tweeted an impulsive question: “Just wondering, in the event of revolution where would Edinburgh crowds gather, where is the city square, where the city’s heart?”

I didn’t really expect a response and was amazed at the number of suggestions which followed. (In retrospect the speed and tone of answers gave a hint of political upheaval to come.) Members of the SNP (twibbons prominent) suggested Edinburgh’s political epicentre should be Holyrood:  “We could storm the palace then occupy parliament.” Labour supporters would gather in High Street: Parliament Square, outside City Chambers, or round the Tron.

No-one suggested St Andrew Square, though that is where the Occupy Movement would later pitch their tents, opposite the former RBS headquarters, and round the foot of that old rogue Henry Dundas. If I had my way, Edinburgh’s ‘fourth plinth’ would oust that outrageous phallic symbol.

Alternatively it could sit on the Mound, in the wide open space between Royal Academy and National Galleries, stirring a debate between art and establishment.

So – Holyrood, Royal Mile, St Andrew Square, the Mound – if Edinburgh lacks a clear centre, it still offers plenty of theatrical civic space with scope for provocative contemporary art.

Who would fund it?

That’s harder. London’s Fourth Plinth is funded by the mayor and supported by the Arts Council. Edinburgh does not have a mayor and the current relationship between Scottish Government and Creative Scotland raises doubts in my mind that they could conjure up a commission allowing criticism of Scottish culture or politics. Of course, I know, artists do not always top the Trafalgar Square plinth with controversy – Time Out reports that the most popular Fourth Plinth piece so far is Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle by Yinka Shonibare.

But if Haacke leaves interpretation to the viewer he clearly intends to provoke: ”…in a very indirect way, you can play a part in shaping what people think and talk about and even who is going to be running the government.”

Would that be tolerated by the Scottish establishment today? Clues to the Scottish Government’s views on culture are found in the White Paper:

Scotland’s strong and vibrant culture is one of our most enduring and powerful national assets. Our rich heritage gives Scotland its sense of place and underpins our understanding of our past, our present and our future. Scotland’s creative communities – our artists, writers, poets, dancers, directors, musicians and designers – provide new insights and drive forward new ideas. They help us see ourselves in new ways and present Scotland in its many dimensions to the wider world.

Proud, confident PR – ‘driving forward new ideas’ would not sound out of place in a brochure for Tartan Week in New York. Would this glossy presentation of Scottish culture permit art to question the past, ruffle the present or raise doubts about the future?

Perhaps a Scottish ‘fourth plinth’ would have to be sponsored by an impartial body, or a philanthropist. The John Byrne Award for young adults – it “seeks to cultivate conversations about values and ethics” –  offers an inspiring example.

Would Scottish artists feel free to question Scottish government or Scottishness?

The hardest question. To me, art and artists cannot be defined by nationality – any more than birds, seeds or the winds that blow them can be confined within borders. In Scotland right now the most audible voices are the cheerleaders for nationalism (civic or otherwise). But that is surely not the only song or story.

You know the problem with you lot? You’ve got fuck all except attitude.

Queen Margaret’s speech in the third of the James Plays by Rona Munro always provokes a laugh and often raises a cheer – and it is perhaps as doubled-edged as Cattelan’s finger.

And what of the visual arts? David Shrigley was one of very few artists working in Scotland to suggest he might vote No, during the referendum campaign. Implicitly in the New Statesman, more explicitly in the Guardian.

Scottish contemporary art is fizzing with life and energy. Who knows what this year’s Turner Prize might turn up when it opens in Glasgow’s Tramway (nominations are open now). Interestingly, Glasgow-based Shrigley will follow Haacke onto the Fourth Plinth with Really Good, his giant bronze hand signalling an elongated thumbs up gesture – unlike Cattelan’s this digit looks a cheery sign and it will probably get full bodied blessing from Boris.  But look again, what is Shrigley saying?  Here’s a typically enigmatic quote: “It is my hope that this piece would make Trafalgar Square, London, the UK and the world a better place. And it would be quite a cost-effective way of doing it.”

Perhaps that’s the way to wangle a Fourth Plinth into Scotland. Make it Really Good. Ambiguity is in the eye of the beholder. Or to give Cattelan the last word, as he told the Financial Times:

If it’s true that every reign needs its jester, nowadays this role is probably assigned to artists: in front of a good work of art, people react at the tragic ridiculousness of the situation, that kind of laughter where if you didn’t laugh, you would cry.

This first appeared in Sceptical Scot, a new online magazine asking awkward questions about life in Scotland.