The Emperor's Old Clothes

by Raqs Media Collective


The Fourth Plinth at Trafalgar Square, being empty, is a good place to think about departures of all kinds. What, for instance, would the departure of power from its pedestal look like? 

Places like Trafalgar Square are designed to have us look—literally—up, at those who have wielded power. Here, one can find monarchs, military men, and national heroes; sometimes on horseback, some with weapons in hand, all in regalia. But Trafalgar Square isn’t only about powerful men. It is a place where a large public, people in the thousands, pass by. They meet each other, pass the time, keep moving. Many of these people are visitors and tourists, and many are ordinary Londoners; many of these ordinary Londoners are from those parts of the world that London once ruled. They are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of peasants from the Punjab and Bengal, immigrants from hungry Ireland and distant Australia, tribesmen from the Niger Delta, and indentured labourers of the islands of the Caribbean. The world that was once ruled by the men petrified in Trafalgar now passes through it; sometimes it stops to snack or throw an absent gaze in the direction of erstwhile equestrian eminences.

The presence of Everyman on the square creates a ripple in the patterns of force that mark its daily life. The question that we are interested in is,

“What does this do to the petrification of symbolic power on the square?”

The Emperor’s Old Clothes is an answer to this question in sculptural form.

It takes us from Coronation Park, a quasi-derelict space that holds a few relics of empire in the outskirts of Delhi, to the heart of post-Brexit London. Coronation Park is the last resting place of a few relics of commemorative imperial statuary that once adorned the broad avenues of the new British Indian capital of New Delhi. After the transfer of power in 1947, these statues were consigned to a field in the outskirts of the city, which had once been the site of the ‘Delhi Durbar’ of 1911, where the British Monarchy had ceremonially witnessed the fealty of its Indian princely vassals.

In politics, the question of who enters, who exits and who gets to stand in the agora (the square) is central. Ceremonial spaces and situations like Trafalgar Square, or the ‘Delhi Durbar’ of 1911, are usually designed with a view to creating an effective representation of the durability as well as the pomp and circumstance of power. History, however, marks the fact that power can never be eternal. Eventually, all forms of power, in their turn, are rendered vacant by the passage of time. Power becomes its own ghost, and often returns to haunt itself. With this piece, designed specially for the Fourth Plinth, we want to think about how to represent the inevitability of this abdication. We want to register a trace of what we think actually haunts Trafalgar Square.

What we intend to place on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square is a sculptured rendition of the robe of one of the relics at Coronation Park in Delhi. The robe, empty of the figure it clothed, will be the regalia left behind by an emperor who went out in search of new clothes in Delhi. What will remain on the plinth in London are the emperor’s old clothes.

Every child who has had a passing acquaintance with the legacy of Hans Christian Andersen knows the story of the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’. It is a great story — it also makes for one of the sharpest parables on the operations of constituted power. Only the child in the story can see the fact that the wielder of power is naked. Not even the emperor is aware of his own nakedness, because power often isn’t.

We all know that one of the ways in which power acts is through the optic of how it wants to be seen. We too can choose to see the raiment left behind and deduce that the emperor, perhaps, is naked.



Images: Raqs Media Collective, The Emperor's Old Clothes, Trafalgar Square Fourth Plinth Shortlist, model, 2017, resin. Courtesy the artist & Frith Street Gallery, London.

Raqs Media Collective are Monica Narula, Jeebesh Bagchi & Shuddhabrata Sengupta: artists, writers and curators in Delhi, India.

Issue 13: POWER, December 2017.