Mark Wallinger

It is the human being—not its ego—that stands at the center of Mark Wallinger’s work. And that distinguishes him from the YBAs with whom he was once associated. His Ecce Homo, 1999, conceived for a column in Trafalgar Square, where it was installed at the turn of the millennium, takes on a traditional motif of Western art history—the tortured Christ under the tribunal of Pontius Pilate—but depicts the former as an average human, wearing a barbed-wire crown on his shaved head, recalling the victims of twentieth-century extermination camps. The marble sculpture now stands in the courtyard of the Aargauer Kunsthaus, visible through windows from all sides, but at the same time isolated and inaccessible (a bit like Wallinger himself in Sleeper, 2007, for which he spent ten nights in the illuminated glass box of Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie, wearing a bear costume). Ecce Homo marks the center of this thoughtful survey exhibition, Wallinger’s largest to date, which is also the debut of this Swiss museum’s newly arrived director, Madeleine Schuppli.

The exhibition, which features works from 1988 to 2007, highlights Wallinger’s earnest concern with religion, his intelligent irony, and his topical political interests. Among the earliest works is Passport Control, 1988, a suite of self-portraits taken at photo booths and altered with black marker, adding various features: thick glasses and black tie; beard, hat, and forelocks of a Hasidic Jew; Arab headdress and moustache; beard and turban; or blackened face. As with many of Wallinger’s works, time and context have changed one’s perception—what might once have been a humorous play with identity and ethnicity has become, since 9/11, an image of national and religious paranoia and fear.

Another key work is the iconic and multilayered installation State Britain, 2007, a meticulous replica of the forty-meter-long “protest camp” erected in 2001 by Brian Haw, a Christian peace protester, in front of the British Parliament. Haw’s original protest piece featured anti–Bush/Blair slogans alongside horrible images of victims of the war in Iraq (particularly children), images one doesn’t usually see in the media. It was finally removed in 2006 due to a new law banning unlicensed protests within one kilometer of Parliament but Wallinger documented it in detail just before its destruction. The artist first installed his 1:1 replica at Tate Britain, placing the work so that half of it lay within the radius set by law, the other not—thus proposing the art institution as a last refuge for free speech.

Wallinger’s poignant humor is perhaps best illustrated in Oxymoron, 1996, a Union Jack in the Irish colors; in his acrylic-on-canvas Self Portraits, 2007, which form the letter I in black on white in various fonts; and in the five-channel video installation Landscape with Fall of Icarus, 2007, a looped series of clips of people falling, taken from television shows. Often Wallinger uses reversal or mirroring effects, where meaning develops by seeing or hearing things “from the other side,” as in Upside Down and Back to Front, the Spirit Meets the Optic in Illusion, 1997; Angel, 1997; or one of the most recent installations included here, The Human Figure in Space, 2007, which consists of an intricate grid of taut kite string, reversed numbers, and a mirrored wall—a virtual body that is completed through its other, imagined, half.

Eva Scharrer