Katharina Fritsch interview: 'we were always ashamed to be German'

The artist talks about bringing a big, blue (and arguably French) cock to London

photo: Gautier Deblonde
'Hahn/Cock' by Katharina Fritsch
Overnight on Wednesday July 24, a fourteen-foot-high statue of a rooster, painted a glowing ultramarine, will travel under wraps from an undisclosed London location to Trafalgar Square, where it will perch atop the vacant Fourth Plinth. On Thursday July 25, Boris Johnson will make the headlines – and no doubt a few doubles entendres – when he unveils ‘Hahn/Cock’ (Hahn is German for cock) by the sculpture’s creator, Düsseldorf-based artist Katharina Fritsch. Known for her reworkings of everyday objects and images, Fritsch makes the familiar strange through unlikely shifts in scale and leaps across the colour spectrum. At 57 years old, she’s a major force in international contemporary art. But will her deadpan humour translate to the most high-profile public sculpture commission in Britain?

Was ‘Cock’ the first thing that sprang to mind when you thought of Trafalgar Square?
‘It was a pretty quick decision. I had a stuffed rooster toy in my studio. I always looked at it and thought, One day you have to make a Hahn – or cock – sculpture, but it’s a very difficult thing to do because so many artists have done roosters – Picasso, for example. I think it’s totally worn out as an image, so I really wanted to find a new way of doing it. And it fits totally with Trafalgar Square.’ Because of all those sculptures commemorating our military big boys?
‘Yes, there are all these very male figures on their pedestals. But it also fits because it has these tail feathers, which are kind of exploding, echoing the form of the fountains.

What makes a great public sculpture?
‘I think it’s very important for public art that you can look at something and get it very quickly. I like to make things simple. When you do a sculpture of an animal most people have an immediate emotional response. But the piece, like its location, has a lot of levels.’ There’s been some controversy about the fact that the cockerel is an emblem of France. Was it your intention to ruffle feathers?
‘It wasn’t at all my intention to put a French cock on an English plinth, with Nelson looking down on it. I didn’t think of that. I thought more about the male thing, but maybe when you think about the male, you think about the French… I work quite intuitively. Perhaps it was at the back of my mind that it might also be a political symbol.'

So it’s not a swipe at British national pride?
'You know, as Germans we don’t think in nationalistic terms any more, we think only in terms of Europe. I am of a generation that hasn’t any national pride. I was born in the 1950s and we were always ashamed to be German, so that was never a question for me. It certainly wasn’t my intention to hurt anyone. I hope the English people take it with humour. I don’t want to make a bad joke, partly because I’ve spent so much time and money on this piece.’

Is it more time consuming to make sculpture for an outdoor site?
‘It took two and half years of my life. We had to do a lot of tests because it’s in a public place. I don’t want anyone getting injured by my French rooster! The ultramarine colour brings the whole thing together but it is particularly sensitive. We did a lot of rain tests. I think it turned out bright and very nice.’

Trafalgar Square’s pigeons may have other ideas…
We’ve treated the sculpture for that, and a special cleaning and maintenance schedule is in place.’

As a piece of representational sculpture, the work is quite traditional. Do you think of yourself as a classical sculptor?
I’m always working with space like an old-fashioned sculptor – I want each piece to work from the back and the sides. But then with the colour I make the work more like an icon, more virtual, so it’s always hovering between being a sculpture in a very traditional way and becoming flat like a picture.’

That’s quite an unusual idea for a sculptor…
‘I think I developed something there! I am a kind of pioneer.’

How do you hope people will react to the sculpture?
‘I love Trafalgar Square, it has really gorgeous architecture and because of its different levels and the fountains it's a joyful urban space. I think, partly because of the colour, the sculpture is also quite joyful. I like controversy because it's lively but I hope the sculpture won’t be too controversial. I’m very excited but also a little afraid.’

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