Elmgreen & Dragset on Their "Almost Embarrassing" Rocking Horse for Trafalgar Square's Fourth Plinth

Elmgreen & Dragset on Their "Almost Embarrassing" Rocking Horse for Trafalgar Square's Fourth Plinth
Elmgreen & Dragset at AB Foundry with "Powerless Structures, Fig. 101"
(Copyright: Gautier Deblonde)

Next Thursday Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset will launch their own take on Britain's most challenging public art commission: filling the empty Fourth Plinth on Trafalgar Square for 18 months. This ongoing series has seen Yinka Shonibare putting a ship in a bottle, Anthony Gormley inviting Londoners to stand on it for an hour, and Thomas Schütte provide a hotel for local pigeons. The Scandinavian duo have chosen to respond to the equestrian sculptures that grace the other plinths: but instead of a glorious grown man, they've gone for the bronze of a dreamy young boy on a rocking horse. ARTINFO UK met them at AB Foundry, as they were putting the finishing touches to their soon-to-be-unveiled monumental toy.

How did you approach the Fourth Plinth commission?

Michael: Most often when we do a project we relate to the site — and not only to the architecture or the design, but also to the social context. So we asked ourselves what Trafalgar Square is a symbol of, and how it is used in everyday life. It's of course very different to do something in a place like this than in, say, Tate Modern. People didn't really ask to have an art experience when they pass through Trafalgar Square, you have to have that in mind. There's also the history of Trafalgar Square. For us as continental Europeans, it's strange to see all these war monuments celebrating victories. We were taking our position as outsiders to look into that and the tradition of equestrian sculpture, to play around with these aesthetics. Most public sculptures depicting persons have to do with history. We wanted to do something that would be about a future. [These monuments] also have to do with the image of masculinity. All these generals and admirals have a very classic masculine posture, they are "men" in a way that's about conquering. [Our piece] is showing a boy before he got into those bad habits. He might have fantasies about going to battles, but they are still just fantasies. In present-day society, everything is about being winners or losers, about victory and defeat, and there's so much more to life. You should celebrate that as well.

Ingar: There's a playfulness that has to do with a child's mind: what can happen in the future? Who can I be? Whereas today we put a lot of worry on the kids. They have a lot of roles to live up to. It's more and more about the individual being "number one," the winner, both with social media and talent shows. There's not so much room left to just be, and be allowed to be a child.

You have on ongoing series, the "Powerless Structures," which is also the title of your piece for the Fourth Plinth. How does it fit in with your  earlier works?

Michael: The whole series of "Powerless Structures" is about showing that by just changing a little the character of what an object says — swapping a real horse for a rocking horse, or changing the age of the person being depicted — everything becomes completely different. It's a positive thing more than a critique, a reminder these power structures only exist because we accept them, and agree upon them, and if we want to change them …

Ingar: … we can …

Michael: … and we can come to a common agreement about doing things in a different way. Of course, everything is actually quite fragile, it's just constituted as being powerful.

In 2008 you unveiled in Berlin a memorial to gay people persecuted by the Nazis. The Fourth Plinth Commission is obviously very different, but these two pieces both take place in the public realm. Do you see any connections or parallels between the way you conceptualized these works?

Michael: We like the idea of a dynamic in the Fourth Plinth project — and that is something we had already incorporated in our memorial in Berlin. The films shown inside that monument will be changed every second year, so you'll have renewed discussions about it. It's not just a memorial where you say: now the memorial is up, we are free of guilt. We can wash our hands. We don't see it anymore. With the Fourth Plinth project the structure is perhaps even more important than the projects themselves. The public really engages with the piece, and when things actually start to settle, it's already time to have a new one. That's absolutely the right way to treat that empty plinth. We see it as a problem when sculptures are permanently installed. After a while they don't really fit in the cityscape anymore. When you pass it, it looks randomly dumped on that square. It would be maybe good to be able to remove the sculptures after a while.

Can you tell me about the actual making process of the bronze?

Ingar: When this project was selected, we went to the studio in Berlin to make a bigger model on 1:3 scale, which was supposed to look like what we wanted the end result to look like. It was very different from the little one, where we couldn't really go into that much detail. This second version was made of plaster. It was shipped to London, where it was scaled up, point by point, to the full scale. What happened in that process is that a lot of the features looked strange or odd, or even monstrous, and we had to work on the big version as well to make it look right.

Michael: It was basically the face. Suddenly it was not sweet anymore. So we had to redo that completely and work on it on the real scale. Then there's many negatives and positives before the bronze is actually poured using a lost wax process.

It is hollow, isn't it?

Ingar: It is hollow but it still weighs two tons.

What will happen to it after the Fourth Plinth? You'll still have a two-ton sculpture to deal with.

Michael: We have quite a big studio in Berlin!

Ingar: No plans so far, we've been too busy actually making it.

In your play "Drama Queens," you used sculptures as actors. How do you see the relationship between sculpture and performance? Is this something that has informed the way you thought about the Fourth Plinth project?

Ingar: Every object has a sort of performative aspect to it. For example, with the diving board going through the window ["Powerless Structures, Fig. 11 (Diving Board)" ], there's a lot happening in your imagination. We first worked mainly with everyday objects like doors, or chairs, then we started to do more slightly realistic-looking figures, like the maid ["Rose," 2006], or the guy floating face down in a pool outside of the Venice pavilion [Danish and Nordic Pavilions, Venice Biennale, 2008]. We realized that we could not only talk about the meaning of objects but also add a narrative layer to it. People would use more of their memories or personal stories to understand these objects. They would start to create their own stories. I feel that it could happen here as well, as everyone has had a childhood of their own and they can relate to a toy.

Michael: Don't you know this feeling that objects are not only symbols, but that they actually speak to you? Like you have this little ugly coffee cup at home and you are like: "I should throw it out" and the coffee cup is saying to you: "oh no, do you remember, we had good times, don't get rid of me just because I'm a little bit ugly." We often relate to objects in a much more personal way than what they represent. They are surrounded by a certain aura.

A rocking horse is also something that belongs to very private surroundings, but in your piece it is exposed on a public square.

Michael: Exactly. That was an important element, to do something which is slightly sentimental, but also fragile. Something that you are not allowed to show in public is fragility. If you start to cry in the street or show emotions, it's highly embarrassing. We sought that at such a significant location in London, with all these very serious gentlemen surrounding it, it was important to make something that would be not only a big joke, or something really spectacular, but also something that would have a fragile quality to it — so it's almost embarrassing. 


The Fourth Plinth is Commissioned by the Mayor of London and supported by Arts Council England. "Powerless Structures, Fig.101" is supported by AlixPartners with Louis Vuitton.