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Chickening Out

4 September 2013

Coverage of Katharina Fritsch’s Hahn/Cock, the latest occupier of Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth, has so far fixated on the two big questions: ‘Is it rude?’ and ‘is it French?’ Alas, this writer knows not the answers, and suspects that the giant blue pullet can’t be much the wiser himself.

What it is, though, is a very welcome break from the normal media question dusted off and rolled out whenever the plinth gets a new tenant: ‘Is it, like, art?’ Without even addressing the big cock’s formal attributes (fnarr fnarr), Fritsch should be commended for an idea that has attracted genuine public interest without resorting to any shock tactics beyond a bad pun.

It’s a fine-looking thing, too – absurd, for sure, but very handsome nonetheless. Yves Klein would have approved heartily. Yves Klein? Ah. The French – here we come to the question of gallinaceous Gallicism. Much has been made of the blue cockerel’s longstanding status as a symbol of French sporting prowess, but although this line of enquiry is as valid as any other kind quasi-informed reading, it feels a little limited. The effect is a stare-off with Britain’s similarly inert one-armed naval myth and his leonine guardians.

Fritsch, a German, has spoken eloquently about seeing universal signifiers of patriotism – of which Nelson’s column and the bunting-swaddled approaches to Buckingham Palace must be the most recognisable in Britain – as an outsider. The cock’s allegiance is irrelevant, but the sculpture itself is a tremendously deadpan response to national mythologies.

So what distinguishes Fritsch’s cockerel from the strain of mediocre public sculpture best exemplified by Pascale Knapp’s seemingly omnipresent fibreglass cows? Trite it may sound, but the question can be answered in one word: context. Fritsch has judged both the space and its attendant significance far more successfully than any other Fourth Plinth inhabitant in recent memory, working with the surroundings rather than in spite of them.

Hahn/Cock effortlessly addresses serious subjects with the sort of humour Marcel Duchamp wouldn’t have scoffed at. All pontification aside – and this statement is qualified by several minutes’ casual observation of passers-by – it’s nigh-on impossible to look at it without the sensation of a smile creeping to the sides of the mouth. In its own way, it is the best sort of public art imaginable.

Hahn/Cock, the latest commission for the Fourth Plinth, was unveiled in London’s Trafalgar Square on 25 July 2013.

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