Yinka Shonibare MBE, Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, 2010
Vehicles? Mention of the fourth plinth? Those who have been paying attention could probably have predicted Yinka Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle as the subject of my next post. And here it is. (Those now thinking the next one will be about Elmgreen and Dragset’s haven’t been paying attention quite long enough though; I’ve written about that already.) I’ve liked quite a few of the works commissioned for the fourth plinth – the plinth in the North West corner of Trafalgar Square in London originally intended to host some general or other on a horse, I think – but Sonibare’s is definitely one of the ones that I enjoyed the most. It’s the sort of work I couldn’t resist going to have another look at when I was nearby, the sort of work that unfailingly made me smile even on the greyest day.
Firstly of course there’s the inevitable ship-in-a-bottle question of how it got there. Given the scale, it’s easy to see that the neck of the bottle is wide enough to get quite big things through, but not something on the scale of the ship. Given the intricate detail of the replica ship, the job of assembling it must have been a painstakingly slow and tricky one. Then there’s the significance of Nelson’s ship being here in Trafalgar Square, also home to Nelson’s Column. The empty plinth could have been made for this work.
This being Yinka Shonibare though there’s also the question of the fabric: the sails are made of Dutch wax, a material with a history that speaks of colonialism and trade routes (which I’ve talked about before). However problematic the legacy of Empire, it is part of what makes London the multi-cultural city it is today and this seems to have driven Shonibare’s thinking. Just as the choice of the Nelson’s ship, the Victory, as the model to be bottled effectively celebrates Britain’s maritime history and Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, the choice of the Dutch wax fabric for the sails celebrates the complexity of the nation Britain is now and in particular the cosmopolitan nature of contemporary London.
The work is a frivolous one in many ways. Nonetheless, it works and works well. It’s even a work that makes sense Shonibare’s use of his MBE as part of his working name. And though the site for which it was made seemed like the perfect one, it’s now found a new home – arguably at least as appropriate – outside the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.