Next year the skeleton of a riderless horse will grace the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square. Called “Gift Horse”, and sporting an electronic ribbon tied to its leg displaying live Stock Exchange prices, it is by the German artist Hans Haacke.
Hans Haacke is a German-American artist living and working in New York. He has long advocated demystifying the relationship between art galleries and the commercial art world and in 1995 he published the book Free Exchange, a transcript of a conversation between himself and French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.
Bourdieu is recognized as a pioneer in investigating cultural, social, and symbolic capital. He coined the concepts of habitus, field or location, and symbolic violence in order to explore the dynamics of power relations in society.
At the Whitney Museum of Modern Art in New York, Haacke is represented by an artwork protesting against censorship. Called “Sanitation” it features six anti-art quotes by US political figures. The quotes are displayed in a Gothic typeface reminiscent of Hitler’s Third Reich. On the floor is an excerpt of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing freedom of speech and expression. Lined up against the wall are a dozen garbage cans with speakers emitting military marching sounds.
Haacke’s contribution to the Fourth Plinth may be political. Apart from the reference to not looking a gift horse in the mouth, the figure of a riderless horse, also known as a caparisoned horse, is one that accompanies the funeral procession of a head of State. The custom may date back to the time of Genghis Khan, when a horse was sacrificed to serve the fallen warrior in the next world.
Of course, one would not expect Hans Haacke to bite the hand that feeds it – in this case the lump of sugar that comes with the media if not public acclaim given to those artists whose works are featured on the Fourth Plinth.
However, Haacke is not the first to depict a skeleton horse on a plinth. “Horse Power” (1999) by the Israeli artist Zadok Ben-David stands in the city of The Hague in the Netherlands. The form of the horse, taken from a volume of anatomical illustrations, is a monument to vanished power and glory.
Is Haacke making a mockery of today’s art world? Is he making a sardonic comment on Great Britain’s place in the world (in which case is he beating a dead horse)? Or is it all merely horseplay? We may never know.