Fourth Plinth

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.