Yinka Shonibare MBE

Yinka Shonibare MBE, “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle”, Fourth Plinth, Trafalgar Square

One has to feel a bit sorry for Sir Keith Park, the Battle of Britain hero whose memorial sculpture proved an unfortunate placeholder on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square recently.

Replacing Antony Gormley’s living, breathing Fourth Plinth-Commissioned One and Other, only to make way for Yinka Shonibare’s recently unveiled Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, this non-project sculpture of Park, while a faithful addition to the playground of historical monuments that is Trafalgar Square, was nevertheless most memorable for what it demonstrated in absentia. That is, the success of the Fourth Plinth Commission in generating interest in – and debate about – contemporary public sculpture and its ability to re-animate public spaces. Sir Keith Park might have more luck in his new home in Waterloo Place but, with the return to project-commissioned works, the success of Shonibare’s work must now be considered, and successful it arguably is.

All manner of work has appeared on the plinth since the first commission in 1999 including a marble sculpture of the disabled artist Alison Lapper by Marc Quinn, Gormley’s literally human portrait and Rachel Whiteread’s inverted invisible plinth. Perhaps surprisingly, Shonibare’s is the first work to engage specifically with the historical significance of Trafalgar Square. Indeed, Shonibare’s large-scale 3.25 x 5m ship in a bottle is a faithful replica of Horatio Nelson’s HMS Victory, which he sailed during the Battle of Trafalgar and on which he died in October 1805. The only historical aberration, Shonibare has replaced the cream canvas sails with his trademark African fabrics.

Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

This brightly patterned material has formed the visual basis of almost all of Shonibare’s work for nearly the last 20 years and its cheerful colours belie a fascinating, complex and not entirely happy history. The wax cloth fabric, in fact an Indonesian batik, was imported by the Dutch during the 1800s and then sold cheaply to the colonies of West Africa, where they were popularly claimed as a form of African dress and identity. That the fabric was later printed in Manchester, and can now be purchased from Brixton market in South London only amplifies the complex post-colonial, multicultural narrative that is central to Shonibare’s practice and ongoing line of enquiry.

None of this is noted anywhere near the plinth but this richness of suggestive meanings is not altogether lost and there is much to take away from Shonibare’s work even without an appreciation of the fabric’s history.

Certainly the connection between Nelson and the birth of the British Empire is obvious enough and with it, the beginnings of multicultural London, which is Shonibare’s point here, but there is also a delightful series of ironic visual ideas that make this viewing experience wonderfully engaging.

Taking in the first instance the very art of ship bottle building. The necessary need for process, patience and exactitude is arguably also necessary for the building of empires and in much the same manner that collectors build and collect ships in bottles, so too did the British Empire build and collect countries to sit on the mantelpiece of Britain. The visual suggestion of empire building as casual hobby is breathtakingly cheeky.

Then there is Shonibare’s red wax seal, in which he has embossed the letters “YSMBE” – Yinka Shonibare MBE, Member of the British Empire. Shonibare was awarded the title in 2005 and has since insisted on its use at every turn, an honour and a gentle parody, for clearly the empire no longer exists and the award was given in recognition of a career made from questioning and re-framing the historical narratives that were built on the back of the Empire and its political, social and cultural post-colonial ramifications.

All of this can still be lost of viewers and the charm of Shonibare’s work remains. Because above all else it is visually arresting, fun and a witty riposte to the historical gravitas of Nelson’s Column and his colleagues on the other three plinths.