Fourth Plinth: Hans Haacke’s Gift Horse is being looked in the mouth

Trafalgar Square's newest inhabitant is garnering a mixed response for its political connotations

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The Independent Culture

The blue cockerel has hopped off Trafalgar Square's Fourth Plinth to be replaced by an emaciated pony.

Gift Horse by German artist Hans Haacke is a “wry comment” on the equestrian statue of William IV originally planned for the plinth, and is derived from an etching by George Stubbs.

The title is a play on the platitude “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” (you can determine a nag’s age by examining its teeth, apparently - but you should be grateful for anything given freely), is causing some critics to peer inquisitively into the sculpture's jaws.

Haacke, who lives and works in New York, has long examined the relationships between art, power and money. "The title of the piece is Gift Horse, and that implies something is off," the 79-year-old told press at the piece's unveiling.

But he wouldn't be drawn on quite what it means, adding: “The piece is an invitation to make connections, but I wouldn't like to give directions as to what those connections are. I'm sure there will be a diversity of responses, as is typical of public art."

Tate boss Sir Nicholas Serota might have said that it is “clearly about the fragility of power systems and the state and the financial systems,” but others (perhaps used to having a laugh at Hahn/Cock, Katharina Fritzch’s vast bright blue cockerel which resided on the Fourth Plinth before it) aren’t prepared to take things so seriously.

The Spectator’s Digby Warde-Aldam might previously have called plans for the piece “OK as public art goes”, but having seen it in reality the critic became so disgruntled by the “strip of stockmarket ticker-tape tied in a bow around its leg” that he declared: “Haacke is aiming for an Ozymandias-style comment on capital and society; what he achieves is the equivalent of a biro’ed anarchist symbol on a GCSE maths textbook. Look on my works, ye mighty, and cringe slightly.”

David Shrigley with a maquette of his sculpture 'Really Good' which has been chosen to stand on Trafalgar Square's Fourth Plinth in 2016

London Mayor Boris Johnson, who unveiled the work, seemed to pre-empt criticism of the work, saying: “There will be those that say this undeniably unfed, emaciated quadruped is a warning, a memento mori, a symbol of the pursuit of austerity and the George Osborne diet approach to life.”

“But I say no, my friends. This wonderful sculpture stands for the horse in all its incarnations... in these fabulous tubular structures we see symbolised the vital infrastructure - the tube - that must run beneath the surface of any great and beautiful city."

Passersby today appear impressed with one describing it as “stunning” and the Telegraph’s critic conceded “surprisingly, it's actually quite good”, adding: “I quite like what turns up every year or so on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. By and large, the offerings have been striking, funny or intriguing.”

Ekow Eshun, chair of the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group, said. “It’s a memento mori, it’s a reference to art history and to the fact that money is the hidden dynamic that fuels our city for good and bad. It’s a beautiful and poetic piece.”

Next year we'll see David Shrigley's giant thumbs up (it's called Really Good, which is just asking for the critics to disagree) arrive on the Fourth Plinth. At least we know that one's meant to be funny.