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Skeletal Horse On Trafalgar Square's 4th Plinth Is Art And A Stock Ticker


This next story will test the ability of the British to keep calm and carry on.


London is the home of a new work of art. It is part of a competition.

INSKEEP: It's outdoors.

GREENE: It is more than a little different than the customary statues of heroes on horseback. And it caught the eye of NPR's Ari Shapiro.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: This is one of the most iconic venues in London - Trafalgar Square - Nelson's Column surrounded by lions, statues of military men standing on pedestals. On one of those pedestals, there's a statue that looks nothing like the others.

PENNY PALMER: We're wondering why they've created that skeleton of horse and why they've connected it with the stock exchange. We haven't quite worked that out yet.

SHAPIRO: Penny Palmer and Richard Booth have figured out that this statue was a giant horse's skeleton. They've also figured out that the bow around the horse's front leg is displaying a steady stream of numbers from the London Stock Exchange. That puts them ahead of most of the tourists I spoke with. What does it mean? They're working on it.

PALMER: The economy is galloping away from us.

RICHARD BOOTH: The bones of the stock market - it's bare-bones.

PALMER: No rider - the stock exchange galloping away out of control is slightly worrying.

SHAPIRO: You've just made yourself a little bit anxious, it sounds like.


PALMER: I have, actually. Well, how are my savings doing? Oh, I haven't got any. (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: The artist is a man named Hans Haacke. He was born in Germany and has lived in New York for about 50 years. He says he designed this work almost as a lark, never thinking that a city like London would go for a piece that takes such direct aim at capitalism and finance.

HANS HAACKE: With this kind of proposal, I believe I would have had no chance in New York, and this is the environment that I know. And I assumed that London is not much different.

SHAPIRO: He says he wanted this skeletal horse to play off the more traditional equestrian statues around it. So why did London agree to this edgy piece? Here's the woman who helped put it there.

JUSTINE SIMONS: I'm Justine Simons. I'm the head of culture for the mayor of London. And I was standing in the heart of London, in Trafalgar Square in front of the fourth plinth.

SHAPIRO: What is the fourth plinth exactly?

SIMONS: The fourth plinth is the most talked-about sculpture prize in the U.K.

SHAPIRO: Let's start with the word plinth.

SIMONS: So it's a kind of platform for a work of art, or you might have a statue on it. It's the base of a statue.

SHAPIRO: Trafalgar Square has four, and three of the plinths hold the kind of traditional bronze statues you would expect. The fourth plinth stood empty for 150 years. First there was no money for statue. Then nobody could agree on who should go there.

SIMONS: So around time of the millennium, there was an idea to commission contemporary artists to see what they might do on the empty plinth. And that is the start of the story here.

SHAPIRO: And this was premised on the notion that these contemporary artworks would not be here permanently?

SIMONS: Exactly, yeah. If you do anything permanently, people get very, very agitated about it. So it's much, much easier to have, you know, temporary works that come and go.

SHAPIRO: Each sculpture gets a year and a half on the plinth. The current sculpture, called "Gift Horse," replaces a giant, bright blue rooster. It's impossible to miss these pieces, and it's impossible for people to agree on them, either. Justine Simons says that's one of the things she loves about the project. When it comes to the fourth plinth, everyone's in an art critic. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.