Courtauld Reviews

Review for Courtauld Reviews: "Yinka Shonibare, Nelson's Ship in a Bottle"

Yinka Shonibare, Nelson's Ship in a Bottle, 2010

Yinka Shonibare, Nelson's Ship in a Bottle, 2010

Published by Courtauld Reviews, Issue 5, June 2010

Fourth Plinth, London

24 May 2010 - 30 January 2012

Unveiled in Trafalgar Square in May 2010, Yinka Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle now boldly adorns the fourth plinth. Vastly contrasting with the plinth’s previous occupant, the stoic (and, shall we say, humdrum) statue of Battle of Britain hero Sir Keith Park, Shonibare’s artwork playfully toys with the limits of kitsch, while still managing to retain strong political undertones. 

Memorializing the Battle of Trafalgar, the sculpture is the first commission for the fourth plinth suggestive of Trafalgar Square’s historical symbolism. As the title of the work suggests, the piece consists of a minutely detailed replica of Lord Nelson’s HMS Victory ship encapsulated in a mammoth Perspex bottle, corked and sealed with red wax. The replica’s seafaring precision only falters when confronted by Shonibare’s trademark batik print textiles, which are used for the ship’s sails. Symbolic of African identity and the legacy of British colonialism, the billowing, bright patterned sails add a new dimension to the work, as they sturdily hint towards postcolonial theory. Thus, the sculpture not only celebrates Nelson’s victory, but also London’s multi-cultural wealth, which, in Shonibare’s own words, ‘still breathes precious wind into the sails of the United Kingdom.’ Though the visual amalgamation of British history and the story of multiculturalism in London verges on camp, it is a successful one since it reflects the complexity of the expansion of British trade subsequent to Nelson’s victory which granted the nation the freedom of the seas. 

Needless to say, Shonibare’s message in a bottle resounds in the Square loud and clear, for all to hear, as the latest commission for the fourth plinth transcends the constrictions of sculpture and becomes a symbol in itself. Moreover, though Shonibare’s work is politically charged, it retains a childlike charm and sense of wonder that is sure to enchant even the most cynical viewer.

Review for Courtauld Reviews: “Henry Moore”

Henry Moore, Recumbent Figure, 1938

Henry Moore, Recumbent Figure, 1938

Published by Courtauld Reviews, Issue 4, March 2010

Tate Britain, London

24 February - 08 August 2010

While the 1988 Henry Moore show at the Royal Academy presented the sculptor as a romantic, Tate Britain attempts to reinvent Moore (1898–1986) as a radical, experimental and avant-garde artist. The artworks are given center stage in this exhibition, uncovering a dark and erotically charged dimension to Moore’s work that incites visitors to revisit their preconceived notions of one of Britain’s best-loved sculptors. Through the presentation of over 150 stone sculptures, wood carvings, bronzes and drawings by the artist, the exhibition explores the trauma of war, the advent of psychoanalysis, and new ideas of sexuality, non-western art and surrealism as frameworks within which Moore can be reborn. 

While the show’s revisionist aims are clearly stated in the introductory panel and constantly reiterated throughout the exhibition by means of wall texts and quotes, it is questionable whether these aims are successfully communicated to the viewer. The gallery spaces are decidedly empty of information. The wall panels are sparse and the object labels only provide tombstone information. Similarly, the room divisions seem disparate and the display of works, random. While some rooms explore Moore’s cultural influences (Room 1: World Cultures), others focus on subject matter (Room 2: Mother and Child), isms (Room 3: Modernism), historical periods (Room 4: Wartime and Room 5: Post-War) and materials (Room 6: Elm). For some visitors, this lack of direction may privilege a sensory response to the artworks or encourage viewers to address their own subjectivity. For others, the schizophrenic structure of the exhibition may elicit mystification and misunderstanding. While the exhibition engages with the canonical narrative of modernism and gestures towards meaning, there is no coherent grand narrative, as it is riddled with inconsistency. Hence, the show can be described as distinctly postmodern, but is this postmodern construction intentional? 

The answer is not immediately clear, as today’s art museum is a postmodern construction in itself. The curator is no longer the sole voice in an exhibition, since different departments often have divergent agendas. This has created a decentered museum and is reflected in the microcosm of the narrative of the Henry Moore exhibition, which also possesses a plurality of voices. Thus, perhaps the more interesting question is: Have the curators made a conscious intellectual choice to present the material in a postmodern way, or is the exhibition an indirect result of the postmodern construct of society in late-capitalism which also formulates the structure of the museum? The most plausible answer appears to be simply both. While the exhibition presents a revision of modernism, the decentered museum structure shapes and emphasizes the postmodern convolution of the narrative. 

Arguably, the audio-guide provides the strongest reading of the exhibition, as it successfully pulls together these different voices. Without it, the various modes of interpretation do not interrelate. In many ways, this digital technology becomes a lifebuoy to navigate the exhibition, as it constructs threads of meaning throughout a gallery space which often lacks cogency. Moore’s Reclining Figures and Mother and Child themes, for example, are interspersed in the various rooms, creating a sense of continuity. Similarly, the audio commentary constantly refers back to Moore’s approach to materiality, as well as elements from the artist’s biography, to construct the meaning of the various works included. It can be argued that these different ribbons running through the exhibition by means of the audio-guide give the exhibition its “true” meaning, negating to a certain extent its postmodern structure. 

While it is difficult to assess if the curatorial aim of the exhibition has been attained, it is immediately clear as one walks through the gallery space that there is ‘Moore’ to the artist than meets the eye. Arguably, this is where the success of Tate’s Henry Moore exhibition lies.