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Low Culture Essay: Eamonn Forde On The Harrods Princess Di & Dodi Statue
Eamonn Forde , December 14th, 2023 09:36

Each year, Eamonn Forde would make a Christmas pilgrimage to "London's greatest tourist attraction", the statue to Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed at Harrods. In this month's Low Culture Essay, he mourns its loss, and reflects on the nature of its art

The author pays homage at the Di & Dodi statue

Oh my god, it was beautiful. For a short period of time, the Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed statue (plus the bonus shrine) in Harrods was unquestionably London’s Greatest Tourist Attraction. It was free, but not enough people knew about it. Now it is gone and the public will never again gaze upon its pulsating, overpowering, discombobulating majesty. The Capital feels depleted as a result.

The Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed statue arrived fully formed in a flash of glory – that also somehow rode in on a cloud of rage – in September 2005. Fittingly, it was utterly unexpected, uncontrollable and unpredictable. This came eight years after the car crash in Paris that killed Diana and Dodi. Eight is not any sort of significant anniversary anywhere or for anything. That was the first and biggest clue that this was a piece of sculpture that was never going to play by the rules. Calendars are irrelevant in this instance. They cannot help you navigate the hows and whys.

The statue was there to right what Mohamed Al Fayed, father of Dodi and the owner of Harrods at the time, saw as a series of terrible and unconscionable wrongs. As a physical manifestation of grief and exasperation, it is as disquieting as it is powerful. We can only now talk of it in the past tense. Something so overpoweringly present should never dissolve into history.

Yet no one raged at its removal at the time. Many were glad to see the back of it. They were all, every one of them, wrong to do so. “Don’t it always seem to go,” sang someone many years ago about a taxi or something, “that you don't know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone?” Now it has gone, and that particular paradise was cruelly and crassly paved over, the time is finally right and proper to celebrate it in all its stupefying nobility.

The mise-en-scène of a masterpiece

The facts, as we know them, are as follows. The statue was designed by Bill Mitchell, a man who had been artistic design adviser to the Al Fayed family for over 40 years at the time. Mitchell had previously built a garret on the eighth floor of Harrods, he had masterminded its overpowering Egyptian Room and he later planned to put a zoo on the roof of the store.

Only he could be trusted with a job of this significance and importance. This was simultaneously to prove to be his Christ The Redeemer, his Aphrodite Of Knidos and his Lucille Ball. He was also going to design a “statue of liberty” for Scotland in the form of Princess Scota, donated by Al Fayed if and when the country got its independence. Why there is not a statue to Bill Mitchell remains a stain on this once-proud nation. The Diana and Dodi statue is what will cement his legacy. It is proof that magic is real.

The component parts of the statue and the shrine it stood in front of need serious individual attention. Seeing them all together is almost too much to take in. It was a surge of wonder that required repeat visits to properly decipher and decode.

The statue: embracing the centrifugal chaos

Placed between the up and down sides of the Egyptian Escalator, your first encounter was by descending slowly upon the statue. It felt unreal, intense, overwhelming: like sleepwalking down a hallway of past dreams. You reached eye level and then had to quickly twist your neck to catch what was happening on a 360-degree level. You felt like the spaceship landing to take ET back to his home planet.

It was simply too much information to take thin on one escalator ride. It was an aesthetic and sensory overload like no other, like staring at a magic eye picture and suddenly seeing the past and the future of the world spiral out in multiple directions.

Since moving to London in 1998, I would only ever visit Harrods every December, the premise being that it was only worth going to in order to see the Christmas window displays. It may have been in 2005 that I first made the fateful journey into the store and, possibly lost in that mammonistic maze, adrift in this Escher poem to freewheeling capitalism, I stumbled down the Egyptian Escalator and had my life and my brain pulled inside out and upside down.

I don’t really believe in fate or destiny. But what else could this be? This was definitely fate and destiny. Visiting it became my Christmas ritual.

The centrepiece of the monument was a bronze statue of Diana and Dodi (his shirt billowing open, her in what seemed to be a nightie) locking eyes and releasing an albatross (which is supposed to symbolise “freedom and eternity” and that was perhaps previously around their necks, but it is not quite clear). The albatross also had the initials “DD” on its wings, perhaps suggesting a deep love of the bowlcutted author of the Ramones’ ‘53rd & 3rd’. They were shoeless, dancing in the waves of the Mediterranean, perhaps the last place they were truly happy together (apart from all the paparazzi taking photos of them).

The statue was named, with a sense of keening bombast, Innocent Victims, these two words taking up much of the base of the statue, like two brutal claw marks on the nation’s conscience. “I have named the sculpture Innocent Victims,” said Mohamed Al Fayed at the unveiling, “because for eight years I have fought to prove that my son and Princess Diana were murdered.”

Bidoun, which focuses on the arts and culture of the Middle East, did not speak favourably about the statue, calling it “what might be London’s oddest work of public art”. Leaning on light psychoanalysis, it claimed, “At the very least, the sculpture seems to be a vision of what a wealthy, unimaginative man of humble birth might want for his son – a princess, utterly pliant; a princess, to make of him a prince.” Its conclusion was brutal. “Innocent Victims is, by almost every measure, a terrible work of art.”

It is only a “terrible work of art” if you compare it to, for example, other works of art that are good. Which is exactly the wrong way to try and understand what is happening here. By doing that, you will miss out on the ideas that are being fashioned into three (possibly four) dimensions on this astonishing potter’s wheel. This is not a “terrible work of art” because it is not a “work of art” in the accepted or traditional sense. Trying to understand it as “art” is an inherent misunderstanding of it in toto. It transcends art just as it transcends reason. It exists on a level that the human brain is simply incapable of understanding. It exists beyond comprehension. It exists beyond art. It simply exists beyond.

The pain and the beauty and the confusion that the statue aimed to crystallise were all grandly elevated – perhaps intentionally, perhaps not – by the fact that Dodi looked like Ian Krankie and Diana looked like Rod Hull. Maybe that was no albatross they were releasing. Maybe that was… Emu.

Al Fayed wanted this to become a place of public mourning in Britain’s poshest department store. In a morbidly monetary twist, this was where you had to enter through the gift shop.

It was, in Al Fayed’s mind, the true place to weep and rage, not the official memorial fountain by the Serpentine, pretty much equidistant between Harrods and Diana’s former residence of Kensington Palace. Al Fayed, as if clearing bronchial lungs, dismissed the fountain as a “sewer in Hyde Park”.

It was, however, less of a sewer and more of a £3.6 million prop in You’ve Been Framed given it had to be temporarily closed after two adults and a child were badly injured in July 2004, mere weeks after it opened, after slipping while paddling in it. Before that, the water pump had malfunctioned and a “rogue leaf” had caused issues. Even though the child involved sustained a serious head injury, it was a miracle that no one died. Two innocent victims are enough.

Objet d’arse: everything else beyond the statues

The statues might be the heavy hitters – they might have been the pyro explosion – but they were not everything. Beyond the statues was a shrine against the back wall that also had a lot of moving parts. We need to digest them individually.

The entwined photo:

Portraits of Diana and Dodi were entwined (symbolism!), he was laughing like an outtake of an accountant getting their photo taken for the company’s annual report while she gazed up coyly with a mysterious smile (a smirk? Acid reflux?) playing across her face.

Students of semiotics, as well as anyone who has ever used a spirit level, will be swift to note that the photos were not completely parallel. Diana was placed higher than Dodi. Is this accepting of the fact that Diana, arguably the most famous person in the world in 1997, greatly outranks Dodi, someone most people would only have heard of a few months earlier? Or is Dodi actually holding her up in an act of admirable altruism? If I had not made it clear already, this is something that requires you to throw your preconceptions away. Think differently. Think Di-fferently.

The deep and complex symbolism of the black glass pyramid

A cursory decoding would suggest this is simply a nod to the Egyptian Room and the Egyptian heritage of the Al Fayed family. But everything in this space is not as it seems. The black glass also suggests a television screen, where rolling news footage of Diana and Dodi was playing out in the summer of 1997, or even the lens of a paparazzi photographer keen to capture candid images of the couple and cruelly crowbar its way into a private moment by turning their burgeoning love into lurid shots that were sold to the highest bidder. Could it also be a reference to The Eye Of Providence? But rather than it looking at and controlling us, we are looking at and controlling it, the guilty voyeurs who greedily bought the tabloids in the 1990s to feed our insatiable desire to invade the privacy of Diana.

This actually predates the Innocent Victims statue, being unveiled in April 1998, mere months after the tragedy in Paris. Is it a deep reference to The Louvre? The doomed journey began at the Ritz Hotel, which is mere minutes from the Louvre and its big glass pyramid. Plus it was really close to the Pyramides Metro station (not that Diana or Dodi would have got the Metro). There is something there. There has to be.

The multiplying mystery of the objects inside the black glass pyramid

If it was just a pyramid, then we could only decipher so much; but there are other important objects within the pyramid that demand our attention. There is the wine glass that Diana reportedly drank from during her meal in the Imperial Suite at the Ritz. It remained “in the exact condition it was left on the couple's last evening together” which is as unhygienic as it is ghoulish. But the real showstopper was, sitting along with the wine glass inside the deeply secretive glass pyramid, a ring. It was – and you are almost certainly racing ahead of me here – an engagement ring. Dodi had allegedly proposed to Diana that night – this has, however, been disputed – and the ring apparently symbolises the love that was snuffed out too early, unlike the two giant electric candles that sat either side of the pyramid, shining eternal light into the darkness of the lies that have been told about their death. Maybe.

Finally, the whole thing was set upon a marbled monstrosity that looks like a polished stone Transformer caught mid change from an altar into a jacuzzi. This part of the staging has always confused me. I feel it was designed to. I will capitulate and accept I will never fully understand it. I feel this is right and proper.

And then it was gone: the greatest act of cultural vandalism of the 21st century

As soon as I knew about it, a Christmas never passed without my visiting the Egyptian Room to gorge on the whole confounding yet comforting spectacle, watching the light but regular trickle of visitors who were also drawn in, powerless to resist, by its tractor beam.

No one spoke to anyone outside of their own group. They didn’t need to. We were all there to absorb. And then the awful news came in January 2018 – news none of us had ever dared think would happen – that this wonder was to be no more. Mohamed Al Fayed had sold Harrods to the Qatar Investment Authority in 2010 and nothing had changed in the interim. We all thought this was permanent, that it was part of the fixtures and fittings.

Michael Ward, managing director at Harrods, delivered his barbed words. “We feel that the time is right to return this memorial to Mr Al Fayed and for the public to be invited to pay their respects at the palace,” he said. And in that awful moment all hope was smashed into a billion pieces.

The Al Fayed family put on a brave face, thanking Qatar Holdings for “preserving” the memorial since 2010. “It has enabled millions of people to pay their respects and remember these two remarkable people,” it said in a statement. “It is now time to bring them home.”

This was the second time Al Fayed was to experience negative reaction to a statue. In April 2011, Al Fayed, then chairman of Fulham FC, unveiled a mesmerising statue of Michael Jackson at Craven Cottage. Incredibly, it had been commissioned before Jackson died in 2009. Fulham fans said it made the club a “laughing stock”. Al Fayed, with his trademark diplomacy and good humour, said: “If some stupid fans don’t understand and appreciate such a gift this guy gave to the world they can go to hell.”

Fulham fans were right, however. It was a bad statue. It lacked the mystery and complexity of Innocent Victims which remains the simultaneous apex and nadir of sculpture. The statue, plucked so cruelly and so viciously from the public view, now resides in Al Fayed’s home. Perhaps Al Fayed will eventually gift it to the nation. But where to place it?

The fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square has been the location for a rolling selection of sculptures since 1999 and is described as “the most famous public art commission in the world”. This has run its course. The fourth plinth deserves a permanent sculpture. The fourth plinth deserves Innocent Victims.

I mourn its passing every Christmas. The last time I went to Harrods to gaze in horror at this vicious empty space – at this bitter hole where a heart used to be – what stood in its place was a human-sized teddy bear in a green Harrods doorman uniform standing beside a Harrods-green Mini with Christmas presents on the roof rack. They might as well have parked a white Fiat Uno there. Feeling the burning absence of Innocent Victims only reignites my grief at what is supposed to be a time of anticipation and optimism. Each December drives another nail into my soul. We will never see its like again. Truly it was the people’s statue.