5 Mar 2015

Fourth plinth Gift Horse statue unveiled in Trafalgar Square

The latest statue to grace Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth has been unveiled. But what is the message of the huge, skeletal bronze horse wearing a ribbon that displays a stock market ticker?

Artist Hans Haacke told Channel 4 News that he did not want “to give an overall explanation at all.”

But the German-American artist, who has spent a lifetime producing art that exposes and questions the links between art, money and power, believes inequality is one of the major issues of our time.

It’s clearly about the fragility of power systems and the state Nicholas Serota, Tate gallery director

Inspired by the work of the artist George Stubbs, who painted the English gentry with their horses, he has produced a bronze steed that is twice lifesize, in keeping with the massive scale of the 1843 equestrian statue of King George IV that stands on one of the other Trafalgar Square plinths.


However the horse appears as a skeleton. Yet attached to the front foreleg is a gift ribbon, showing a scrolling video display of London stock market data. The title of the work, “Gift Horse”, says Haacke: “alludes to the discrepancy between the style in which this horse appears, and the ribbon with which it is presented as a gift.”

Hans Haacke believes that in 2015 politicians around the world often do not act with the best interests of the electorate at heart, and urges against complacency, warning: “you’re shooting yourself in the foot if you don’t get involved and be active.”

“Very often people get elected by those who are getting screwed all the time … Often they don’t understand that they elect people who don’t have their best interests at heart,” he told Channel 4 News.

It’s clearly about the fragility of power systems and the state Nicholas Serota, Tate gallery director

However, despite his stated desire to let people make up their own mind about what his statue might signify, Haacke says “if they understand it in the opposite way to what I hoped for, then I would be upset”.

Unveiling the statue that he had commissioned as part of the ongoing Fourth Plinth Commission project, London Mayor Boris Johnson told Channel 4 News that he thought the horse commemorated the vital importance of transport in a great urban infrastructure.

Challenged as to the meaning of the stock market tickertape, Mr Johnson denied that the power of the financial sector was too great, saying “I don’t think it’s in a position of excessive power there, it doesn’t seem to be controlling the horse there.”

Speaking out

However the director of the Tate gallery, Nicholas Serota had a very different interpretation: “I think it’s clearly about the fragility of power systems and the state, and the financial systems.

“Hans Haacke is an artist who has been dissecting the anatomy of society for 40 years, and he’s done it brilliantly here in London.”

Mr Serota gave credit to the mayor for not only commissioning the work, but unveiling it during an election period: “I think Boris is a mayor who really believes in freedom of expression. He never stints himself in terms of speaking out, and I think he expects other people to do the same.”

Occupation force

Haacke himself admits surprise at being invited to submit work for the project, which he says is a fantasic idea: “that’s a brilliant use of an empty plinth, to have an occupation force take over”, and says the range of work previously chosen “is not really driven by what you might generally dismiss as the market.”

The artist is a passionate advocate of public galleries, and is deeply suspicious of the of influence corporate sponsorship, warning against back-door privatisation.

Museums have, Haacke believes, a responsibility “to serve the purpose for which they were built in the first place” and not engage in self-censorship that might stop them showing challenging art.