Mark Wallinger

Anthony Reynolds Gallery

Writing in Artforum on the 49th Venice Biennale, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh dismissed Mark Wallinger’s work as a clear-cut instance of spectacle culture usurping art’s previously oppositional spaces: Regurgitating “retardataire humanist, if not outright mythical or religious . . . messages,” work such as Wallinger’s, declared Buchloh, imposes viewing conditions that prevent both “individual contemplation” and “simultaneous collective reception.” Adding insult to injury, Buchloh branded Wallinger in this regard merely a “close second” to Bill Viola—the art world’s “Billy Graham,” in Wallinger’s own, geographically precise estimation.

Ouch. In the UK, where Wallinger’s track record is better known and the more obviously politicized foundations (circa ’80s to early ’90s) of his recent work are assumed, Buchloh’s summary condemnation must have raised as many hackles as eyebrows. But it also highlighted the precariousness of the artist’s trajectory in recent years. Wallinger has argued that a “properly aggressive, critical and ironic [art] . . . does not announce the position it is coming from.” This show of just two works (three, if one includes concurrent screenings of the thirty-six-minute film The Lark Ascending [2004] at a nearby cinema) demonstrated both the centrality of Wallinger’s policy of “nonannouncement” in his work—it is intrinsic to his investigation of language and representation—and the risks he courts deploying such a strategy.

Via Dolorosa, 2002, for example, is an eighteen-minute video that silently replays the crucifixion sequence from Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 TV drama Jesus of Nazareth, with a black square obliterating all but the extreme edge of the image. Emptying the film of its ostensible content and laying bare the film’s mechanics, rendering long shots, close-ups, and pans generic, the device voids the narrative’s affective potential. Nevertheless, the near vacuum created is one into which projections and interpretations will inevitably rush, be they devout visions of Christ’s sacrifice, accusations of retardataire religiosity, or polite art-historical speculation on the implications of imposing a monochrome rectangle onto an image of Christ.

In Third Generation (Ascher Family), 2003, a screening of a Jewish family’s home movies at Berlin’s Jewish Museum has itself been videotaped (including interruptions, as museum visitors walk between camera and screen), rerun on a second screen surrounded by a neutral surface, and videotaped a third time. As well as referencing previous work by Wallinger on the subject of eugenics, the reframing process (like Via Dolorosa’s) strips the original footage of any anticipated affective charge and refocuses viewers’ attention on the utterly prosaic, inexpressive shufflings about of the museum’s visitors.

In The Lark Ascending, a uniformly gray, slowly lightening cinema screen is accompanied by a doctored sound track: larks’ song gradually rising from a comical, honking bass to a nearly correct pitch. Wallinger has noted laconically that the piece “does what it says on the tin.” As well as being a subtle, unexportable joke about the monochrome (it’s the slogan of a UK household-paint manufacturer), the comment underlines the banality, even ludicrousness, of this “transcendent” work’s ingredients.

Do gallerygoers need to be prevented from indulging their regressive cultural tendencies by having nice, strict, explicit political rubrics forced on them? Wallinger clearly thinks not: His works enact simple structural transformations on very specific mythic representations in order to turn them into test cases—demonstrating (among other things) just how slight the cues can become without the process of “reading in” being interrupted. But it’s a precarious operation: Pointing to the mechanism can very easily look like reinforcing it. Wallinger places a lot of faith in his audience’s capacity for self-reflection—for some critics, evidently, too much.

Rachel Withers