On one level it is an absurdly large swirl of whipped cream with a cherry, a fly and a drone on top. On another it is the end of everything as we know it.
Visitors to Trafalgar Square in central London have until spring 2022 to come to their own conclusions about the vast new artwork by Heather Phillipson, the 13th contemporary art commission to fill the fourth plinth.
Titled The End, it was unveiled on Thursday morning, four months later than originally planned. The reason for the postponement was coronavirus, something that now gives the dystopian nature of the work an extra edge.
Phillipson said she came up with the idea for it in 2016, the year of the EU referendum and Donald Trump winning the US presidential election.
“For me, we’ve been at a point of some kind of entropy for a long time. When I was thinking of this work there was a sense for me of an undercurrent that was already there … this feels like a continuation of that.”
The work gives a sense of something being on the verge of collapse. The cream is melting round the base of the plinth, the fly makes it look unappetising.
“The pandemic just brings different resonances,” Phillipson said. “It attunes them to a slightly higher frequency.”
Its stark title may not be as bleak as it seemed, she said. “In the end there is the possibility of something else forming. There’s the chance of radical change inside any ending … there is potentially hope for something else.”
The work plays on Trafalgar Square being a shared place of celebration, protest and surveillance. It has cameras everywhere including, now, one in the drone on the sculpture, which will provide a live feed at a dedicated website www.theend.today.
The square, one of the most famous and busy public spaces in Britain, remains eerily quiet. “It may be that the crowds will return,” Phillipson said. “That will change the work again. Readings of the work will shift with everything else that is shifting.”
The work, at 9.4 metres, is the tallest plinth commission to date. It is also the first to be fully accessible, with a braille panel on the plaque and an online audio description.
The steel and polystyrene sculpture , which weighs 9 tonnes, arrived in the square on Sunday night to begin installation.
It follows The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist by Michael Rakowitz, a winged bull made from date syrup cans. Other fourth plinth sculptures have included David Shrigley’s giant thumb’s up and its wide-eyed optimism in 2016; Katharina Fritsch’s enormous blue cock poking fun at the square’s male posturing in 2013; and Antony Gormley’s celebration of human unpredictability, One & Other, in 2009. The first was Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo in 1999.
Justine Simons, London’s deputy mayor for culture, said it had been a joy to witness the diversity of ideas for the plinth over two decades.
She referenced the current debate about the nature of statues that surround us and what they say about our values as a society. “For me, the fourth plinth matters more than ever because it speaks to London’s values as an open, international and confidently creative city.”
This year was meant to be a big one for Phillipson. While she may not be a household name, she is a significant British artist whose work spans video, sculpture, music, drawing and poetry. Phillipson has also been commissioned to fill the central Duveen galleries of Tate Britain, which has been postponed until March.
Phillipson said she had mixed emotions about unveiling The End. “It is a strange time to be doing anything right now. But it also it felt like it was never going to be the right time, so maybe it was the right time to just let it happen.”