Thursday, 8 December 2011

Top 10 Contemporary Political Artists: 2, Mark Wallinger

I have a recurring, niggling thought, when making this list, that somehow really political artists shouldn't make saleable works (commodities), that the gallery space is inadequate for really political work and that artists shouldn't really work alone: the collective being a political statement in itself.  We have seen examples of collective practice (Casagrande, Chapman Brothers) and artists engaging their public outside the gallery space (Deller, Starling) but these areas remain, perhaps, underrepresented in my list and my number 2 spot goes to the 2007 Turner Prize winning British Artist Mark Wallinger (coincidentally 1997 was the same year Nathan Coley [my number 3] was nominated).
State Britain, 2007

Gene Ray, in his paper for the book The Sublime Now (ed. White & Pajaczkowska, 1999) concludes that the "cultural avant garde" can still make a political difference, but Ray sees the Internet as a more likely forum for political action and interaction than the gallery space.  I think the gallery space can still be used in the manner that Ray calls for.  “State Britain” (2007), where Mark Wallinger recreated Brian Haw’s Parliament Square protest is one example.
“On 23 May 2006, following the passing by Parliament of the ‘Serious Organised Crime and Police Act’ prohibiting unauthorised demonstrations within a one kilometre radius of Parliament Square, the majority of Haw’s protest was removed” ( 
 Considering Wallinger’s work in a sublime context we can begin to appreciate its genius.  Not only did Wallinger use pubic money (taken from the state coffers) to re-make something the state had banned, he also managed to place the protest within the government exclusion zone –

“…the edge of this exclusion zone bisects Tate Britain. Wallinger has marked a line on the floor of the galleries throughout the building, positioning “State Britain” half inside and half outside the border” (  
While perhaps the literal meaning of the work is to challenge notions of free speech and to highlight erosion of civil liberties, it also raises questions about authenticity.  Does a replica demonstration do the same job as the “real” demonstration?  Can the real demonstration be considered an original, even though it was comprised of mass produced media imagery?  Can a replica be Art?  The last question certainly requires us to reconsider Benjamin’s definition of Art, where a photograph cannot be considered Art, as the power of Art lies in its “un-reproducibility”, its uniqueness: the power is in its “aura” (Benjamin, W 1943).  State Britain could also be seen as an act of collaboration (with Haw) but not in the sense that niggles me for Wallinger still claims sole credit for the artwork, the ego is still there.  Something else niggles me about this work - it was put up for sale by Wallinger's gallery Anthony Reynolds - a strange decision.  It should come as no surprise that after the Tate Commissioned the work they also selected Wallinger for the Turner Prize short-list (a different kind of politics is emerging here).
Ecce Homo, 1999
Wallinger is well know for State Britain, Ecce Homo (his commission for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square) and for winning the so-called "Angel of the South" Ebsfleet commission in Kent (his giant White Horse).
Half Brother, 1995
Those who have known him longer will remember his photo-real paintings of race horses ("Race, Class, Sex and "Half Brother") which featured in his first nomination for the Turner Prize in 1995.   These early works addressed issues of race and breading as well as immigration (Race, Class, Sex) are depictions of four horses, all offspring of an Arab stallion brought to the UK.  They also tackle part of British Identity.  I saw Mark Wallinger's show No Man's Land at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2001.  According to the gallery:
No Man's Land marks an increasing interest in metaphysics and in systems of belief.
In No Man's Land Wallinger returns to explore religion or rather critique the particular belief system of Christianity.  Is Wallinger reminding us that we are on borrowed time, not on Man's land but God's?  Previous works Ecce Homo and Threshold can be read as exploring Christianity with sensitivity.  Ecce Homo was made in 1999 in the build up to "the millennium" an event that Wallinger felt was extremely secular, like watching the noughts go round on your speedo.  2000 years since what? asks Wallinger.  Ecce Homo is a life sized statue of Christ wearing his crown of thorns, awaiting judgement by a lynch mob.  When placed on the fourth plinth however, the life-sized scale becomes instantly small, vulnerable, human and the sculpture communicates to us as one of us (it could be me up there on the edge of that plinth, on my own).  Threshold to the Kingdom is a video of people coming through arrivals at London City Airport.  Slowed down and accompanied by Allegri’s Miserere Mei, Deus (written to be sung in the Sistine Chapel) the moment when people come through the double doors reminds us of the arrival at the gates of heaven.  People meeting and greeting their loved ones who have been away for too long remind us of Christianity's promise that we will be reunited in the afterlife.
Prometheus (Installation), 2001

In Prometheus Wallinger refers to a bygone belief system through both the title and the endless loop of the video.  In the Greek myth Prometheus gave life to clay (creating mankind) but was punished for doing so by Zeus who had him tied to a rock and an eagle eat his liver everyday, only for it to grow back at night.

Prometheus, 1999
Prometheus is also a comment on the phrase "playing god", both in the Greek myth and in Wallinger's content.  Prometheus is, after all, a video of an execution by electric chair.  The two minute video plays on an endless loop which rewinds and begins again and again, reminding us of the myth but also of the perpetual stays of execution that US prisoners have to endure (Dead Man Walking for example).  As the video rewinds, the unpleasant noise and the sped-up twitching of Wallinger's fingers and toes remind us of an electric shock.  In fact the victim is not exactly Wallinger but Wallinger's alter ego "Blind Faith" - the blind man character who appeared in the 1997 video Angel.  In the No Man's Land exhibition Prometheus was displayed as an installation, made all the more harrowing as the viewer, upon entering the room, is given a god's eye view of the electric chair which is mounted on the wall.  Close-ups of the victim's hands are displayed on walls to the left ad right revealing the words LOVE and HATE tattooed onto his fingers.
Is Wallinger religious and reminding us that we are not to play god?  Or is he critiquing a belief system through the title of the character "Blind Faith".  No matter.  He is making us look at ourselves and our values.

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