8 October 2011 - 19 February 2012
The work of the British artist Mark Wallinger (1959) is very diverse. Though trained as a painter, he also employs the media of photography, video, performance, sculpture and installations. In addition to this, language plays a significant role. In his work Wallinger raises social, political and religious issues, often with remarkable lightness. With the much-discussed State Britain, he won the Turner Prize in 2007. Measuring forty-three meters in length, this work now comprises the core of his exhibition at De Pont—the first to be held in the Netherlands.
In State Britain hundreds of banners, war photographs, protest signs, bloodstained articles clothing, stuffed bears and flags are strung across the exhibition space. The work is a meticulous reconstruction of the 'wailing wall' with which peace activist Brian William Haw (1949-2011) gave power to his protest on Parliament Square in London for many years. When Wallinger photographed his sprawling protest in early 2006, Haw had already been camping out across from the Palace of Westminster for five consecutive years, in order to draw attention to the humanitarian disaster brought about by the sanctions against and war in Iraq.
Wallinger had great admiration for Haw's tenacity; the visual impact of his wall of protest must certainly have contributed to the fact that he documented it carefully. An urgent need to turn this into a work of art only came later, however, when police dismantled the entire camp on the morning of 23 May 2006. For this specific purpose, the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act had been passed: a law prohibiting unauthorized demonstrations within a one-kilometer radius of the government buildings.
About six months later Wallinger exhibited State Britain in the Duveen Gallery of Tate Britain. The meticulously copied version of the protest wall had been transformed, from an indictment of the war in Iraq, into an artwork which then raised and, even today, still raises many questions concerning function and meaning. In what respect does this copy, carried out in detail and in the same materials, differ from the original? Does it still act as an indictment against war, or has it become a monument in favor of freedom of expression? Can an artwork concur with a social expression of protest, or should it serve another purpose? And if so, what purpose would that be? Those questions became all the more poignant due to the fact that Tate Britain itself lies partially within the prohibited one-kilometer zone, as Wallinger was pleased to discover during the development of the project. With his special talent for incorporating such 'coincidences' for the benefit of his work, he introduced a dividing line straight through the building, which distinguished between the permitted and non-permitted areas and thereby emphasized the legitimacy of the issues raised by the installation.
Wallinger's work is characteristically grounded in reality and in the social matters that it questions. Yet his art never becomes overtly political. Due to their hidden connotations and absurdities, the works elude unambiguous interpretation. In I am Innocent (2010) two reproductions of the famous papal portrait by Velasquez, which had also fascinated Francis Bacon, have been attached to either side of a rotating flat sheet of aluminum. In a continuous movement—one of the two depictions is a mirror image—the pope turns round and round, repeatedly looking down in suspicion at the viewer. At a time when ongoing revelations have put the authority of the Catholic Church under immense pressure, it doesn't seem far-fetched to interpret this figure's pivoting in a figurative way and to see the title as an expression of hypocrisy and ecclesiastical power, or the lack of it. There is, however, another possible explanation for the title, and this does equal justice to the facts. The depicted pope is Innocent: Pope Innocent X.
Also where his own name is concerned, Wallinger manages to make optimal use of its ambiguity, as in the nearly two-hour-long video Mark and in the intriguing installation According to Mark. Depending on how we look at the title, our interpretation of the hundred chairs can shift. Set up in rows and marked with the letters MARK, they are visually connected by a bundle of white cords, which reach their vanishing point—or have their origins perhaps—at a higher point on the wall.
With other works in the exhibition, too, Wallinger often makes use of existing material. That can be anything from passport photos taken in a dispensing booth, an American television series from the 1960s, photographs and films from the Internet, to existing typefaces such as Arial and Lucida Console in a series of self-portraits, as well as every poem from The Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1918 in the work Word, which covers an entire wall.
Landscape with The Fall of Icarus involves five monitors, arranged in a semicircle, which show short amateur films about the unfortunate experiences of five men. Balancing on or dangling from a rope and ready to fly off, they get tangled up, stumble or are harshly confronted in other ways with the laws of gravity. On television such films provide a perverse kind of entertainment. In Wallinger's installation those frustrated attempts to get off the ground are associated with the fate of Icarus and thereby acquire a mythical dimension. Not only the title, but the greatly decelerated portrayal of the fate, being played out time and again, also gives an extra dimension to the banal incidents. Aside from deceleration and repetition, Wallinger moreover employs symmetry, mirroring or the enlargement of images as a means to raise the banal to a higher level and grant it a broader scope. The philosophical dimension lends something special to the banality, but that very loftiness is then mocked and put in perspective by the banality at the same time.
Wallinger plays such contradictions and ambiguities against each other, not just in the individual works but in the exhibition as a whole. For The Unconscious he took, from the Internet, photographs of people who have fallen asleep on public transportation. These somewhat awkward images, greatly enlarged, are loosely grouped on a long wall. The cell-phone snapshots taken by fellow passengers show a complete loss of self-control: carefully guarded egos have vanished behind the literal and figurative vulnerability of a gaping mouth, a head nodding off, an exposed neckline. These images of defenselessness and surrender have their counterpart in a series of paintings on the opposite wall. A more inclusive and, at the same time, compact form of portrayal can scarcely be imagined. The depictions of the fifteen Self-Portraits in black-and-white consist of no more than a capital 'I', each painted in a different typeface.
As Tim Adams, critic for The Observer, wrote about Wallinger in 2009: "He is that rare beast, a conceptual artist whose concepts get richer the longer you look and think."