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The person who got me through 2021: Heather Phillipson’s sculpture brightened my trips to hospital | Art and design


Most people were keen to leave 2020 behind but had I known what was coming in 2021, I might have chosen to stay there. From the first days of January I started to experience extended bouts of dizziness – a feeling that the ground was moving beneath me, with bursts of tinnitus, nausea and head pressure thrown in.

One thing I can tell you about near constant dizziness is that it’s not the ideal state to be in if you are trying to homeschool a four-year-old, entertain a stir-crazy one-year-old and hold down a full-time job. As for fun activities: just looking at a playground roundabout was enough to send me spinning out.

I have a dormant blood cancer and my doctors were concerned that these symptoms could be a sign that it was developing. By September, I was travelling regularly into central London for various tests: blood work, ultrasound scans and the always-good-for-a-laugh bone marrow biopsy, in which a nurse forces a needle inside your hip bone to suck out the insides. None of these tests were as bad as the fear of what the results might bring.

Dealing with all this after 18 months of the pandemic had made me somewhat dejected. Then one day, turning my head (dizzily) towards Trafalgar Square, I saw it – Heather Phillipson’s sculpture The End, on the fourth plinth. A giant dollop of cartoon cream that appeared to have splatted down on top of the plinth during lockdown when nobody was looking. From my angle I couldn’t really see the fly that sits on top, nor the drone hovering at the cherry – it was just a big, sweet treat sitting cheerily among the greying war generals and their horses. I forgot about the impending long needles and went to sit with it for five minutes, grinning at the sheer absurdity of its existence.

“The impression of something being dumped from the stratosphere was a key part of the sculpture’s genesis,” says Phillipson when we are in touch by email. “I was sensing not only how it would land conceptually, but also, simply, visually – brazenly – among all that statuary.”

The sculpture, there until spring 2022, is not called The End for nothing. For all its vibrant appearance, the cream can be seen as a metaphor for an increasingly unstable world. The drone speaks to the technological creep upending our lives, and as for the fly? Well, the work was conceived before the pandemic, but it couldn’t have landed on the plinth at a better time. The germy little insect seems to be saying: “Enjoy this tempting treat and you might get sick.”

Yet these bleak undertones were not what resonated with me as I made my regular pilgrimages to see The End en route to the hospital. The tests would eventually come back stable and the dizziness was attributed to ongoing migraine-related issues. But while everything hung in the air, I embraced the cherry-topped cream’s most immediate and surface-level meaning: a little burst of joy in what had been a long, gloomy year.



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