Oh what a field day for headline writers! Big blue cock erected on fourth plinth at London’s Trafalgar Square. Boris Johnson unveils big blue cock. Sacre bleu! Lord Nelson now looks down on a giant French cock in Trafalgar Square. And it’s true that the artist, Katharina Fritsch, likes a joke, a bit of wordplay (the word for “cock” in German, “hahn”, has the same double meanings as the word in English). In the land of double entendres, Carry On films, ‘very British’ sex scandals (which always makes me think the iconic photograph of Christine Keeler by Lewis Morley), the giant blue cock should feel right at home.
But apart from being a good joke, Hahn is a brilliant piece of public art. Firstly, the colour is an inspiration. I went to see it on an ordinary grey London afternoon (one of the first in an amazing summer of sunshine). London, as much as I love it, is a rather colourless city on an overcast day (which gives it a certain character), but the blue cock fills the air with its blueness. It’s the blue of Yves Klein, of Titian, of the Blue Meanies in Yellow Submarine (so a bit psychedelic) not the blue of ‘the blues’, but a joyous cry, a proper belly laugh. Getting back to the old double entendres, it’s also the blue of blue movies, something a bit risqué, daring, a middle finger raised in the sedate square.
It’s characteristic of Fritsch. Here’s her giant orange octopus, grasping a doomed diver:
But back to the location, the square itself. Trafalgar Square has in this century become the natural gathering place for protest, as it is a little more than a Molotov cocktail’s throw from Downing Street and Parliament. Many of the Fourth Plinth commissions have made political statements: Marc Quinn’s sculpture of Alison Lapper, or Yinka Shonibare’s piece Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle. The projects that have attempted to bring a subversive force into the square has been the most successful.
You look around at the other statues in the square: pompous generals, preening officials, some on horseback, depicted as Classical heroes. Alll presided over by Lord Nelson, at the top of his ridiculously phallic column. He presides over the whole of central London – I realised he was peeking out at me between buildings the other afternoon when I was sitting on the Level 5 terrace of the Royal Festival Hall. He is a symbol of Britishness, of empire, of battle. So the cockerel, a little preening and pompous himself, has been placed in the middle of this stag party by a woman artist, a self-proclaimed feminist. Who also happens to be German. And she considers her cock to be a very French symbol, placed just so to piss off Nelson – a little nod to Napoleon.
It is public art that makes you laugh, that makes you consider what surrounds it, and gets you to re-evaluate the way the city honours its greats (and who is chosen to honour). And it’s bright. And it’s exuberant. I wish it would stay there forever, because I know as long as it’s there, it will bring a smile to my face.