Thursday, February 23, 2012

Everything New is Old Again

This week London witnessed the expected media buzz that now goes hand-in-hand with the unveiling of the newest Fourth Plinth sculpture. Over the last few years the big reveal has become something of a big deal in the art world; presenting (if nothing else) the chance for contemporary art to demonstrate it still has the power to rankle and subvert. As the Mayor of London's website proclaims, the Fourth Plinth sculptures are "ambitious and provocative and question the role and nature of contemporary art in our public spaces."

By that criteria, Marc Quinn's Alison Lapper Pregnant, Yinka Shonibare’s Ship in a Bottle, and Antony Gormley's One and Other certainly delivered the goods. Thoughtful, human, and provocative, these works challenged the traditional idea of monumental public sculpture as well as our notions about what we choose to celebrate. Sadly, this year's work misses the mark.

Powerless Structures, Fig 101 by the Scandinavian artist-duo Elmgreen and Dragset presents a lazy, paint by numbers version of contemporary art that includes the obligatory historical references, kitschy trappings, and flawless finish we've come to expect from modern art. There's a little Maurizio Cattelan cheek, a little Jeff Koons sheen, and a lengthy explanation about how this work poses a direct challenge to our cherished (and presumably pedestrian) beliefs. The execution is so pitch perfect that I can almost hear the breathless commentary ringing in my head already, "Look at how shiny it is!", "Oh I know, and it carries sooooo much meaning!"

Don't get me wrong, it's art that wants to be challenging. It wants to be provocative. It wants to subvert. A sampling of the press makes that all too clear. The work is described as "a visual statement celebrating expectation and change". We're told that "instead of celebrating military victory and commemorating fame, it acknowledges the “heroism of growing up”".

Are they looking at the same sculpture I am? I ask because I don't see expectation and change at all. I see more of the same. I see succession. I see the future king; the heir apparent. I see a young prince in all his white-male European splendor astride a gilded toy. I see a reactionary work of art more or less toeing the company line; adhering to every cliche' regarding what modern, museum-ready sculpture is expected to look like. It's safe, self-aware, appropriately coy and hopelessly on trend. As to the "heroism of growing up", well I haven't got a clue what that might mean. Is the heroism they're referring to the heroism that comes with health, leisure and disposable income? Funny, because that looks a lot like privilege to me.

Elmgreen and Dragset, the Mayor of London and the Fourth Plinth Commission are all reading from the right script. They're all saying the right things. They clearly know what they want these Fourth Plinth sculptures to signify. They just picked the wrong figure to illustrate their point.