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The stories of Nelson's Ship in a Bottle

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Will Gompertz | 14:25 UK time, Monday, 24 May 2010

Yinka Shonibare's sculpture Nelson's Ship in a Bottle, which was unveiled this morning sitting atop Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth, has a lot of interesting stories to tell us.

Yinka Shonibare• There's all the technical detail about the protective coatings applied to the sails to prevent the sun from fading them and the many tiny fans that are built into the object to keep the temperature within a 10-degree range and stop the build-up of condensation.

• Of course, there's the "making-of" story: how the perspex bottle was made in Italy, then craned into a London studio for the insertion of the scale replica of Nelson's HMS Victory. Once that process had been undertaken - in secret - Shonibare's team clambered into the bottle to add the finishing touches, which you can see in this excellent photo gallery at the Guardian.

• There is the fact that Shonibare is the first black artist to be commissioned to make a work for the fourth plinth and the whole meaning of the piece as outlined by the artist. It's a celebration of Britain's multi-cultural society, which Shonibare attributes in part to Nelson's victory at the Battle of Trafalgar: the seas were freed for the British to build their Empire; subsequently, individuals and families from countries within that Empire arrived in Britain.

• Let's not forget the material used for the sails. These are not the bright white sheets of Nelson's original; they're made of a richly patterned fabric more commonly associated with African dress, a regular motif in Shonibare's work. But the fabric isn't from Africa; it's from Brixton market. The reason it is associated with African dress is not indigenous craftsmanship but the mass production of the material by the Dutch, who sold it to their West African colonies. The design, in fact, is not even African: it's based on Indonesian batik.

Shonibare• And given that the artist wanted to directly relate to the history and symbolism of Trafalgar Square, the nugget I have most enjoyed concerns Nelson's victory. Bobbing about on the Atlantic waiting for the enemy to turn up, the great admiral came up with a cunning plan. Instead of fighting the enemy fleet in the traditional manner, with ships alongside each other, Nelson decided to attack in two perpendicular columns. Although he died during the battle, his orders were executed to great effect and henceforth, Britain had control of the seas.

So if it was symbolism the artist was after, adding a second column - alright, plinth - to join the existing Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, was an inspired gesture.

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