25 January 2014

Commemorate me where there is water, soapy water, preferably.

The Duke of Cumberland, 'The Butcher' to his peers, temporarily immortalised in soap by Meekyoung Shin
Written in Soap, Cumberland Square, London, 25th January, 2014
Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, third son of the British King George the Second (not the mad one, that was George III), astride a white steed on the plinth in his eponymous square (Cumberland that is, not Prince, or Duke, or William). Known to his chums as "Sweet William", and to those less enamoured of him (basically most of Scotland) as "The Butcher", the statue that originally adorned this plinth was removed in 1868 after folks started to accept that maybe commemorating a gentleman who butchered hundreds of injured Scotsmen (along with more than a few Irish) on the battlefield after he brutally crushed the Jacobite rebellion at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 was not such a good thing.

What you see before you is a project by Meekyoung Shin, a Korean artist who has recreated the original sculpture in soap, a piece entitled appropriately enough Written in Soap. The piece was supposed remain in place until the end of June of last year, gradually wearing down under the rain that has been known, on occasion, to frequent these isles, until it vanished away into nothingness, a lathery equestrian Snapchat, if you will. However seven months on and it's still there, both a lesson to teen Snapchat users that nothing ever really disappears (especially naughty stuff you put up on the interwebs) and a testament to the extended dry spell of last summer, possibly the only silver lining to climate change you are likely to see for a very long time (massive droughts all across Africa but hey, soap lasts longer in the UK - sucks to be you, polar bears!).

Whether the artist is commenting on the transience of historical importance, the whitewashing of history by the victors or the futility of self-aggrandising acts of Ozymandian monument building, I do not know, but all of these possibilities might have been lost on a popular high-street scented soap shop who have sponsored the piece and slapped their name all over the helpful explanation plaque at the base (which ironically really could have done with a good clean).

I passed through Cumberland Square today on my way down to New Bond Street, home of Sotheby's and more than a few private art galleries and auction houses. Walking through public galleries, you can forget that the business of art is business. On New Bond Street you can be left under no such illusions, packed, as it is, by those who believe money can buy them taste. The trouble is, in a very real way it does, because our understanding of what is "art" is defined by what was commercially popular - and by "commercially popular" we mean "sold for a lot of money", taste is often measured solely in the number of zeroes in the price tag.

In the great public galleries of the world you can wander along and appreciate the artistic merits of what you see without having to think of the engines of uber-capitalism responsible for producing them, but on New Bond Street the price tag is the work of art, the only merit the buyer is interested in. The 1% may no longer place their own monumental effigies upon the plinths to shower passers-by with their granite gazes of disdain, but make no mistake their motivation for purchasing art is no less Ozymandian.

I only wish I experienced the soap after New Bond Street, and not before. The urge to scrub myself clean was as overwhelming as it was depressing.

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