The Forth Plinth in Trafalgar Square was originally intended to hold an equestrian statue of William IV, however insufficient funds led to it remaining bare for over 150 years until the late 1990’s. The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce conceived an initial project for the plinth in 1999 which lasted until 2001 featuring works by Mark Wallinger, Bill Woodrow and Rachel Whiteread. Following this projects’ instant success, The Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group was established and subsequent works have included Nelson’s ship (HMS Victory) in a bottle with sails made from printed African fabric by Yinka Shonibare, a bronze boy on a rocking horse by Elmgreen & Dragset, a 4.72 metre high blue cockerel by Katharina Fritsch, a bronze human thumbs-up gesture by David Shrigley, and a recreation of a winged deity from 700BC Ninevah destroyed by Isis by Michael Rakowitz amongst others. Preamble over, and onto the current installation by Heather Phillipson entitled ‘The End’. It is the tallest work to grace the plinth at 9.4 metres high, and is an oversized dollop of whipped cream with various toppings; some traditional (a cherry and a fly) and some less typical (a drone, which transmits a live feed of Trafalgar Square and the works’ audience). As well as it’s obvious questioning of state and surveillance, the work was originally intended to comment on global uncertainly post-Brexit and in the wake of the 2016 Unites States elections, as the whipped cream suggests instability as well as being something excessive but nutritionally poor. However, coronavirus meant that its’ installation was postponed by four months, and the public’s perceptions will have inevitably changed during 2020, and the work will now be viewed in a different sociological context. As uncertainty prevails and we live in time of increasing political, social, and economic upheaval where Trafalgar Square will undoubtedly be host to numerous protests, celebrations, and activity – what an interesting time to capture this all via an innocent looking dollop of cream!
Here’s a few facts to get things started: by 2002 more information was stored in digital forms rather than analogue, by 2007 ninety-four percent of global information was digitally coded information, and we continue to produce 2.5 trillion bytes of data each day. I almost feel guilty posting this blog and adding yet more to this ever increasing phenomenon… but this is exactly the subject matter Somerset House’s current exhibition ‘Big Bang Data’ is exploring. Data is discussed in all forms; from the sheer volume of selfies, tweets, Instagram posts and GPS information produced each day, to how it can be harnessed for the common good, its surveillance, what it fails to tell us, and finally examples of abstract creations by artists and designers using this data. One installation entitled ‘data.tron’ by Ryoji Ikeda highlights the infinite scale of the worlds’ data through a hypnotic and constantly changing screen of mathematic formulae and data sets. Another innovative interpretation of data came from Ingo Gunther’s ongoing ‘World Processor’ project started in 1988, featuring a series of acrylic globes representing mapped data on political, economic, social, historical, environmental and technological world issues. Data-centrism is also addressed as there is a growing belief that data contains all the answers, failing to acknowledge that numbers can be manipulated and skewed. This is succinctly summarised in Jonathan Harris’ printed monologue ‘Data Will Help Us’ which questions everything from advertising to dating and whether society has now reached a point where we are ignoring context and common sense, to blindly trust data. The exhibition does a compelling job of making a complex (and indeed dry) subject matter not only accessible but interesting and even beautiful. My only criticism is that the curators played it a little safe and could have probed a little deeper and been more controversial.
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The Royal Academy’s survey on Ai Weiwei was as highly political, subversive, provocative and critical of the state and censorship as I would expect (and indeed hoped!) it to be. However, what surprised me was the artists’ genuine appreciation of traditional dynastic craftsmanship, techniques and materials – which is palpable throughout the exhibition. Spanning eleven large galleries, it focusses on Ai’s work from 1993 onwards following his return to Beijing after living in America for over a decade when his father became unwell. The big-name monumental sculptures including ‘Bed’, ‘Straight’ and ‘Fragments’ take up entire galleries by themselves, and whilst I appreciated their ambitious scale and enjoyed exploring them from all angles, they didn’t grab my attention in the same way several smaller pieces did. The ‘Coca-Cola Vase’, a Han Dynasty vase (dating 206BC – 220 AD) emblazoned with the global brands’ logo raised interesting questions about old versus new, fakes being sold as originals, and if pottery is created today using centuries old materials and techniques what makes it a forgery? Similarly a collection of 3,000 ceramic crab sculptures collectively titled ‘He Xie’ is the result of one municipal authority inviting Ai to design and build a studio to help regenerate their province, which was quickly demolished and he was put under house-arrest, but through social media invited the public to dine on river crabs in protest – as the word for river crab in Chinese is synonymous with internet censorship. Human rights and suppression are common themes throughout; from a surveillance camera carved in white marble, to hand-cuffs made from a single piece of jade, gold wallpaper repeating a pattern interweaving the Twitter logo, hand-cuffs and CCTV cameras, and his most explicit fuck you in ‘Finger’ a black and white wallpaper showing the internationally recognised symbol of the middle finger in different artistic configurations!
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