When Michael Rakowitz first visited London in 1984, his family treated him to a grand tour of the city’s cultural attractions. On the loftier end of their itinerary was the British Museum, where the future artist first encountered the Middle Eastern archaeological wonders that would one day inform so much of his encyclopedic practice. In a somewhat lower-brow excursion, they also invested in tickets to the London Dungeon—an institution combining the aesthetic restraint of a Wes Craven movie with the curatorial diligence of a Hard Rock Café merchandise stand. It clearly had a gruesome appeal.
“It was this institution devoted to misery,” recalls Rakowitz, who fixated on one exhibit in particular: a wax figure of Lord Nelson, showing the various body parts he had lost in battle. Later that day, the family passed through Trafalgar Square, where the same British admiral’s likeness towers over the city atop his eponymous column. Young Rakowitz’s priorities, it’s fair to say, were less than scholarly: “All I wanted to do was look at him through binoculars to see if the statue had the missing limbs,” he admits.
Three-and-a-half decades on, Rakowitz is back in Trafalgar Square with a rather different agenda. This morning, his sculpture The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist was unveiled on a vacant plinth in the square’s northwest corner, where it will remain until March 2020. It is the twelfth contemporary artwork to take up residence on the site, which, since 1999, has hosted one-off commissions from European and British art-world giants including Marc Quinn, Antony Gormley, and Hans Haacke.
The plinth is one of four such pedestals arranged symmetrically around Nelson’s Column, all of which were intended to support statues of British monarchs and military heroes. While the other three were filled, plans to top out the final pedestal with an equestrian sculpture of King William IV foundered due to a lack of money. For a century and a half, the plinth stood unoccupied, an unintentional monument to near-sighted budgeting.