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Trafalgar Square's new sculpture represents City excesses – but Boris Johnson thinks it represents the Underground

The fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square is no stranger to challenge and controversy. Since the late nineties, the plinth has played host to a rotation of contemporary artworks, including a statue of a beleaguered Christ by Mark Wallinger and a nude, pregnant portrait of disabled artist Alison Lapper by Marc Quinn. 

But “Gift Horse”, the new work unveiled on the plinth today may be the most controversial yet. Created by artist Hans Haacke, it’s a statue of a horse skeleton, its leg decorated with a ribbon showing the ticker of the London Stock Exchange.

In case the symbolism of this isn’t immediately clear, the fleshless horse apparently represents the excesses of London’s financial sector, while its lack of rider seems to indicate a lack of regulation or leadership. Hans Haacke has said it is also a tribute to English artist George Stubbs, whose engraving it echoes, and to the fact that the plinth was originally intended as a home for a statue of William IV on horseback (funding ran out before it was completed). 

Overall, the sculpture isn’t too positive about what some might argue is the most successful part of London’s economy, its financial sector. As art critic Waldemar Januszczak noted, allowing Haacke, a frequent critic of social and politic systems, to create a work for the plinth is a bit like “letting Trotsky loose on Buckingham Palace”. 

The Mayor’s office is currently responsible for the plinth, though works are chosen by a separate commission. At today’s event, mayor Boris Johnson was asked why he didn’t veto the sculpture with its blatant criticism of the City, and, well, capitalism as a whole. In answer, he denied this interpretation and launched into his own tongue-in-cheek analysis of the work:

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…

In those fabulous tubular structures you will see symbolised the vital infrastructure – the tube that must run beneath the surface of any great and beautiful city. The tubular structures that have received such fantastic investment thanks to our chancellor … and indeed playing a part in the greatest economic recovery this city has ever seen, and the driving force of the UK and indeed [the] European economy.

(as quoted in the Guardian)

Might want to revise those History of Art A-level notes, Boris. 
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