The 2015 commission for Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth Program, Hans Haacke’s Gift Horse takes as its points of departure an etching by George Stubbs and a statue of William IV on horseback that was initially planned for the plinth in 1841. A meditation on capital and casualty, Haacke’s work will be unveiled in London on March 5, 2015, and will remain on view for eighteen months.
I WAS ONE OF SIX ARTISTS invited to submit proposals for the Fourth Plinth on the northwest corner of Trafalgar Square. The plinth has been empty for more than 150 years. George IV, whose equestrian statue graces the plinth in the northeast corner, had spent so much money during his reign that there was not enough left for his successor, his younger brother William IV, to also get a ride on a bronze horse.
The historical background was one of many bits of information that eventually jelled for my idea of the Gift Horse. Contemporary London, and social and political conditions in today’s world, also entered into the equation. It helped that I am a newspaper addict.
After scrapping several ideas, I thought it might be appropriate to allude to the custom of immortalizing rulers on horseback. (I am not the first of the Fourth Plinth artists to do that). Mine was to be a horse skeleton, adorned with a live decoration—and no rider.
I picked up on an earlier work of mine. In 2010, with the assistance of technical wizards, I projected three of the five TV channels of Silvio Berlusconi’s media empire live into empty areas of badly damaged eighteenth-century frescoes in a former Franciscan church (Spazio Culturale Antonio Ratti) in Como, Italy. At the time, Il Cavaliere was still holding forth as Italian prime minister. Running through blank bands of frescoes depicting the legend of Saint Francis, I had the ticker of the Milan stock exchange giving us the ups and downs of the moment. This live “collage,” embedded in the imagery of the saint of the poor, served as a precedent for my tying a knot with an LED live ticker of the London Stock Exchange on the raised front leg of the Gift Horse.
Part of the proposal for the Fourth Plinth was the inclusion of an image of what it eventually would look like. Having no experience with horse skeletons—I believe I am not unique in this regard—I asked a librarian whether she knew of any relevant publications. She directed me to The Anatomy of the Horse by George Stubbs. I knew paintings by Stubbs of horses and the English horseback-riding gentry from visits to the Tate. But I had no idea that Stubbs was the son of a tanner, had personally dissected horses, and had published engravings of his findings in The Anatomy of the Horse. I then discovered that a portrait of Whistlejacket, a rearing Arabian horse—commissioned by its owner, Charles Watson-Wentworth, the second Marquess of Rockingham—was hanging in the center of a major gallery of the National Gallery, just behind Trafalgar Square. This Marquess was twice a Whig prime minister of England and, according to Wikipedia, “exceptionally rich even by the standards of that wealthy group.”
As for whether the Gift Horse is a memorial or a monument, if you like, you can take it as a tribute to the City, the Wall Street of London.