So it has arrived, Hans Haacke’s Gift Horse on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. I saw it as a maquette in New York last November and was interested to discover how it would appear in reality.
The sculpture, Haacke has explained, is a tribute to the economist Adam Smith as well as the English painter George Stubbs whose painting of the famous racehorse Whistlejacket hangs close by in the National Gallery. The horse also alludes to the equestrian statue of William IV which would have occupied the plinth if the funding had been found. Unlike most horses which make it into bronze or marble, it is not heroic; heroism requires muscle. Based on an engraving by Stubbs, taken from ‘The Anatomy of the Horse’ published in 1766, it incongruously has an electronic ribbon tied round its front leg displaying live the ticker of the London Stock Exchange.
It was this ribbon which I thought looked most peculiar in the maquette and which I found most difficult to visualise, and it got me thinking about the skill that must be required of those who have the task of selecting works for public places. Actually, when you remember some of the artworks in public places perhaps it is has not always been acquired. I am thinking of my particular hate, Paul Day’s appalling Lovers Statue at St Pancras Station.
Scale in a sculpture is so important. A nine inch mantelpiece-ready statuette of Michelangelo’s David, as sold in a thousand tourist shops, does not really give you much idea of the original. Equally, big is not always better; look at pictures of the maquette of the St Pancras lovers. At one metre tall it doesn’t look so bad. It just isn’t strong enough to be a nine metre work.
So whilst I was not particularly enthusiastic about the mini gift horse, I was curious; I am enthusiastic about a lot of Hans Haacke’s work and thought this one could go either way.
Apart from size, the viewing angle is important. In New York, the maquette could be studied at the same level, a view which in Trafalgar Square is limited to passing pigeons. Seeing it from below is a very different experience. The plinth seems more dominant. As with many of the Trafalgar Square offerings, the one exception being the previous incumbent, the Blue Cock, the horse itself looked slightly smaller than you might expect, but at least not over-sized.
The real surprise was the tickertape. Obviously in the maquette, it couldn’t actually work and the little ribbon on the model looked ever so slightly naff. I first saw the sculpture at dusk and the flickering light seemed quiet extraordinary and magical. The sculpture might be an invective against greed and a comment on the destructive power of the markets. In the twilight, greed looked enticing. In sunshine, greed had been given a less important role and for a bit I thought it had been turned off. But no, greed remains; it is of course an important part of the whole Gift Horse is a more political and more thoughtful work than the Blue Cock. ( I had become really bored with that particular joke by the end of its year) It is possible, though by no means certain, that I might even come to like it,