PRINT Summer 2001


Best known outside the UK for his sardonic send-ups of all things English, Mark Wallinger has emerged as a figure whose themes extend well beyond the manners and mores of the land of John Bull. On the occasion of the artist's selection as Britain's representative to the Venice Biennale, critic Rachel Withers examines a body of work that lately seems as concerned with God as Country.

MARK WALLINGER ISN'T KEEN ON AIR TRAVEL. Flying isn't the problem, he explains; it's the airports. Checking in, navigating passport control, getting electronically frisked for contraband, running the gauntlet of customs officers: These procedures make him feel the state's full weight bearing down. So when Wallinger and his team breezed into London City Airport and shot the video for his installation Threshold to the Kingdom, 2000, without a scrap of authorization, a small revenge was scored. They set up the camera, hit “RECORD,” casually looked the other way, and by the time they were thrown out, the footage was in the can. The camera filmed the reflective double doors of INTERNATIONAL ARRIVALS swinging open and shut as travelers made their entrance into the UK. Through simple means—slow motion, precise editing, and a very particular sound track—Wallinger performs a small miracle, a transubstantiation, on this banal material. Shown at the artist's 2000 Tate Liverpool retrospective, “Credo,” Threshold to the Kingdom reduced a good many viewers to tears; and it's a safe bet that visitors to this year's Venice Biennale—where Wallinger has been selected to represent his country at the British Pavilion—will be similarly affected. On-screen, the airport doors open; singly or in small groups, incoming travelers (maybe weary, maybe relieved) slowly, weightlessly stride toward the camera and out of view. The images combine with the sharp compassion of Allegri's setting of Psalm 51 to form an allegory with an overwhelming message: These travelers are dead. They've arrived in Heaven; they've been forgiven. At the end of the day, it's all going to be OK.

Aha! the cynics cry. Banal images plus superbly beautiful music equals the most basic cliché in the filmmaker's book; Allegri is the true begetter of this work's gravitas, not Wallinger. The criticism is easily dispatched: Trickery is intrinsic to Wallinger's sophisticated and distinctly ambivalent conceit. Threshold to the Kingdom offers an almost ecstatic vision of a compassionate redemption that, if one peels back the surface, proves to be a sham. The airport arrival suite's purification rituals, after all, are authoritarian hocus-pocus: First your freedom of movement is curtailed, then it's conditionally returned to you—so just you be thankful. Every air traveler knows that behind the airport's doors are the beady eyes of the state's border controls and—a small step away, at least for the imagination—the apparatus that devises and manages the UK's immigration and asylum laws. The desperate people who don't make it across the threshold into the promised land (by air or any other means) are screened from view, literally and metaphorically. In most cases, one suspects, their sin is simply to have been unlucky. The story behind Psalm 51 is equally unedifying. “Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. . . let the bones which thou hast broken rejoice. . . Then will I teach transgressors thy ways.” These are the words of King David, repenting for a crime spree involving kidnapping, rape, and murder. God subsequently gets his own back with a swift infanticide. It's an ugly fable in which one brutal patriarch imposes talion law on another. It's also, of course, part of the text that many strenuously advocate as the proper foundation of Britain's morals. Yet the psalm, in its choral setting, is beautiful, and the installation is terribly moving. A crisis is forced. The artist giveth, and he taketh away.

Temporal and divine authority are again brought to account in what is now probably the artist's best-known project: Ecce Homo, 1999. Originally commissioned to stand on a vacant plinth in front of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, the piece is a life-size cast of a loincloth-clad man crowned with barbed wire-an image of Christ as political prisoner; a corrective, in part, to the imperial swagger of the square's earthly monuments. Superficially, Ecce Homo seems an uninflectedly humanist statement; on this basis, both the UK broadsheets and the public at large gave its temporary installation a hearty thumbs-up. Critic David Burrows, however, has less reverently observed that Ecce Homo might represent Christ as readymade, in UK parlance the “bog-standard” ordinary geezer turned icon. Furthermore, there's something palpably out of kilter about the figure. Wallinger says he adjusted areas of its face and chest to add an echo of classical modeling, so maybe this supplies an explanation. Proportion is a troublesome thing: Tweak one measurement and all the rest will need rejigging. Ecce Homo is a mule, neither a full-blown instance of classical humanist figuration nor a one-off life-cast: neither transcendent homo universalis nor the Real. individual thing“. Somewhere between concept and mere object, Ecce Homo could feasibly be labeled ”abject," a term that returns it neatly both to the rejected Christ and the Duchampian urinal.

Wallinger has often been typecast as a witty, ingenious satirist of late-twentieth-century Britishness—of its historical myths, cultural mores, and inbred class system. Booty, 1987, for example, marshalled a ludicrous assortment of found objects—a toy train, a city gent's umbrella, a Victorian-style cast-iron pub table, and a mummified elephant's foot-cum-umbrella stand—into a caustic comment on the “achievements” of British colonialism. Works like Race, Class, Sex, 1992, A Real Work of Art, 1994, and Royal Ascot, 1994, mobilized imagery from the racing world to broach issues of “good breeding,” inherited privilege, deference to tradition, and subservience to social precedent. In “Half-Brother,” a 1994–95 series of immaculately painted diptychs of famous racehorses related by sire or dam, Wallinger spliced the heads and hindquarters of different animals into ungainly combinations, nodding at the Stubbsian tradition while querying the “eugenic” project of Thoroughbred breeding. In Royal Ascot, the artist juxtaposed four monitors replaying the BBC's broadcast of the Queen's arrival at Ascot races over four consecutive days. The display, evidencing the absolutely formulaic nature of both the event and the BBC's coverage, extracted a surprising and subversive minimal aesthetic from the royal ritual's repetitive tedium.

However, Wallinger's concerns clearly extend well beyond immediate issues of
national identity; they are as much structural and philosophical as political and sociological. The God with whom Wallinger locks horns in Threshold to the Kingdom and Ecce Homo is the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition, a deity clearly not the exclusive property of Her Majesty the Queen (whatever more fervent members of the Church of England may maintain). Reflecting on his core concerns, the artist identifies an intensive working period around 1995 as an important transitional time. He was trying, he says, to jettison certain satirical tropes that had become familiar and to introduce more risk into his working processes. Writing became important, and he adopted a simple and direct procedural formula—“upside down, back to front, and the wrong way round”—for transforming his raw material. Wallinger's strategies had led him to two core motifs, the word and the mirror, that encode the central concerns of classical and modern Western philosophy. It's proof of his resistance to passing UK art-world fads—specifically, the lamentable valorization of anti-intellectualism in the '90s—that he chose to follow the route they signposted.

But we should beware overemphasizing the 1995 shift Wallinger identifies. Take, for example, a much earlier work, School (Assembly Hall), 1989, which clearly prefigures his current concerns. It's a perspective drawing, in white chalk on blackboard, of the main hall at Wallinger's high school, where, one imagines, he must have attended morning prayers, sung hymns, and absorbed the usual teacherly harangues and pep talks. Lines of perspective extend to the drawing's vanishing point above the stage, where Wallinger has installed a working lightbulb. It's like an omniscient Masonic eye, radiating white lines that mark the hall's floor with a neat, regulatory grid: Maybe it belongs to God the Eternal Headmaster, presiding over the indoctrination of young subjects into the spiritual and temporal status quo. The drawing is a matter-of-fact, geometrical affair, but its subject's capacity to trigger mostly agonizing memories—particularly ones centered on the tyranny of the dread school rules—is almost universal, at least for a Western viewer. In effect, School (Assembly Hall) is a working diagram of the Logos in all its instrumental glory. Nevertheless, the piece is elegantly economical, even sublime. Maybe if Western metaphysics has you for the first seven years, it's got you for life.

“Upside down, back to front, and the wrong way round”: Wallinger's recent work abounds in illusions, projections (of both still and moving images), inversions, reversals, and mirroring devices. Here, an etymological footnote: The Latin root of the word “reflect,” reflectere, means “to bend I backward.” In Wallinger's 1997 video installation Angel, language is reversed and time bent backward. To make the piece, the artist memorized the opening five verses of the Book of John (“In the beginning was the Word. . .”) as if played on tape in reverse. He then delivered the incomprehensible spiel to a fixed-position video camera while walking backward up the downward-bound central escalator at London's Angel, Islington, tube station (thus, of course, remaining in the same spot). In the installation, commuters ascend and descend the up and down escalators to Wallinger's left and right; given the setup, though, it is they who appear to be facing the wrong way and walking backward. Having spoken his piece, the artist reverses up the escalator, climbing higher and higher (the Angel is blessed with one of the longest escalators in Western Europe) until he disappears from view. In the finished work, we hear the biblical passage the right way around and see the commuters perform the antics they do, because the original footage runs in reverse. As a concluding flourish, the opening strains of Handel's 1727 coronation anthem Zadok the Priest musically shroud the ascending Wallinger in baroque splendor.

This account, however, omits an important fact: The artist doesn't perform in Angel as “himself” but as “Blind Faith,” a sober-looking but faintly outlandish, even sinister, persona dad in dark glasses and black tie. Blind Faith carries a white cane, which he swings from side to side as if he's finding his way; he seems almost to conduct the commuters' upward and downward i movement, like a sightless deity apportioning justice in a Last Judgment scene. But because the video tape is reversed, the commuters heading heavenward are really on their way down, and vice versa. The first shall be last, and the last first. In Blind Faith's beginning is his end; in succession, Londoners rise and fall-and by weird coincidence (or is it design?), the sing-song intonation of Wallinger's backward speech sounds, bizarrely enough, like T.S. Eliot reciting his poetry.

“In the beginning was the pun”: Wallinger is fond of quoting Beckett's adage. Funny, elegant, a tour de force of artistic ingenuity, Angel is the antithesis of Beckettian bleakness, but its radical reversal of linear time links it back to the tactics mobilized by high-modernist literature à la Eliot and Joyce (the latter a favorite of Wallinger's) against the instrumentality of rationalism. To set Angel in a still older literary frame, one could say it is more Lewis Carroll than Edward Lear—that is, absurd rather than nonsensical: Its bizarre effects arise from a crazy intensification of logical systems rather than a wholesale disregard for them. This distinction is important. Wallinger's art is not a flip, rote exercise in unmasking the complicity of transcendent signifiers and systems of authority—it is deeply invested in the things it criticizes. Operating at ground level, attempting an immanent critique of the barbed-wire entanglement of aesthetics, representation, and ideology, his work searches for traces of a transparent poetic language, a mission it knows to be highly compromised and ultimately doomed. “The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing,” laments Wallinger's text work Credo I, 2000. Printed in overlapping red and blue green letters, it's designed to be read with 3-D glasses, but the effect is a letdown, as 3-D images so often are. Like the letters, concepts and objects, words and the this truth, must be both mourned and mistrusted.

Arguably, Wallinger's most complex, arresting pieces are those that figure “Wallinger,” as historically constructed subject, within the frame of the work—or to put it another way, those that allow unconscious, symptomatic utterance as much elbowroom as conscious strategy. The Blind Faith persona, for example, is both literally and colloquially a fantastic invention. He reappears in three video installations, collectively titled Speaking in TonguesAngel, Hymn, 1997, and Prometheus, 1999—as well as a series of still photographs called “The Word in the Desert,” 2000. On video, Blind Faith either speaks or sings, but through various technical means (reversing the sound track, altering its pitch, or, in Hymn, inhaling helium) he's made to seem a very unreliable narrator, a medium transmitting language involuntarily. Wallinger masquerades as Blind Faith, but Blind Faith masquerades right back—clues scattered across these works identify him as the man of a thousand overdetermined faces: demon, Buddha, buffoon, mythical hero, mad king, eunuch, vampire, child, preacher, revolutionary, fraud, pupil, murderer, mourner, judge, and the list goes on.

In the video component of Prometheus, Blind Faith appears with bare feet and shaved head, enthroned in an electric chair whose headpiece covers his eyes like a crown that's slipped. He's singing “Full Fathom Five,” Ariel's song from The Tempest. (The song reappears in Word in the Desert I, 2000, on a tombstone being contemplated by Blind Faith; the grave is Shelley's.) Ariel's words, however, are lost in the performance; Wallinger has sung them in a falsetto, then lowered the pitch in the sound edit to create an unrecognizable, lugubrious dirge that's part voice from the tomb, part man singing in the bath. Once the song is over, the edit reverses the footage at high speed; Blind Faith jolts, his hands clutch at the armrests, and his voice becomes an unholy shriek. In Prometheus, Blind Faith really earns an Oscar: He's both Frankenstein (punished for usurping the divine role) and monster (brought to life through electrification; both Father and Son (courtesy of the performance's evident Oedipal connotations); both the Word and (in the role of Ariel) its slave; both the artist and the artist's invention.

Prometheus has been called a reflection on the paradoxes of creativity. That's true, as far as it goes—but it's too safe a reading, one that's overly anxious to neuter both the Blind Faith persona and his creator. Let's risk a Big Critical Statement: Prometheus reflects on the paradoxes of inhabiting Western subjectivity at the end of the twentieth century, a subjectivity founded on the logocentric model. We may, in theory, have spent thirty-odd years in the Post, but the behemoth remains on the loose: As literary theorist Eric B. Williams puts it in The Mirror and the Word, “We are still in the process of exploring the possibilities that arise when the mirror is removed from the center of our conceptualization of knowledge, art and language.” If Blind Faith's seating arrangement looks far from comfortable, and if the video's hermetically sealed, endlessly repeating loop doesn't inspire optimism, he also has a compelling, if lunatic, grandeur. The masochist's throne that Western thought has constructed for its own habitation, the artist reminds us, is amazing as well as unbearable.