You know that public art has succeeded in its first purpose of getting attention when the majority who see it for the first time slow down from their bustle to take it all in. They may then reject it, get angry by it or pen angry green-ink missive – but you’ve first got to make them stop and look. Hans Haacke’s Gift Horse, currently the commission atop the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, succeeds in this regard in spades.
It’s also rather good. It’s no giant ship in a bottle, Ecco Homme or assorted members of the public trying to be heard from what is actually quite a high point – and is probably all the better for it. The skeletal horse is based directly on the work of John Stubbs, whose work has a home in the adjacent National Gallery, and around its feet is a bow relaying a live feed from the London Stock Exchange. The prices for M&S were going through when I was there. Art is never really as clever as it thinks it is (“Oh, the skull represents death does it? Thanks for that, I never would have got there without uou …”) and the themes of a lot of contemporary work seem to be ever more obtuse and meaningless – but this at least is given context by its location and has an appropriately mean twist.
London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson, made light of the political aspect when it came to the unveiling a few weeks ago. He’d be better off embracing it. Judging by the number of people who, having stopped, took a selfie and/or posed for a loved one, and who then went and read the explanation at the foot of the plinth and seemed pleased by it, I’m not the only one to think this is good stuff. I think we’ll all be a bit sadder when this one leaves its temporary home in eighteen months.