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Mark Wallinger

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Post  eddie Sat Oct 15, 2011 3:23 pm

A life in art: Mark Wallinger

'I wanted to say something about how images are used to coerce or incentivise or whip up the best and the worst in people'

Nicholas Wroe, Thursday 29 September 2011 12.10 BST

Mark Wallinger Mark-Wallinger-007
A love of wordplay: Mark Wallinger. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian

In the early 1980s the artist Mark Wallinger was a part-time shop assistant in Collett's, the radical bookshop in Charing Cross Road. He had just left the Chelsea School of Art after an unsatisfactory period as a figurative painter in an institution that overvalued abstract expressionism, and was "thrashing about as an artist" attempting to express his perplexity and anger at the dismal political situation facing the left at the time.

"I was trying to find a way to make work about how politics are represented, and to present some critique of the way the Tories had used that rolling hills, Elgar, jingoism strand that emerged around the time of the Falklands war. One response was the spoof Gone With the Wind poster with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan threatening to blow up the world. But once you've rolled a few thousand of them into plastic tubes, as I did at Collett's, the joke does wear a bit thin. It seemed to me that this sort of satire was not really getting under the skin of what was really objectionable about those times."

So, armed with ideas taken from "books out of the boxes at Collett's, really" – most prominently EP Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, but also critiques of the golden age of English landscape painting and representations of the rural poor – Wallinger was accepted on to the Goldsmiths MA course, where he set out "to make an art that connected with the world and with a public beyond a small esoteric coterie. I wanted to say something about how images are used to coerce or incentivise or whip up the best and the worst in people. But it couldn't be propaganda. I wasn't at Speakers' Corner or standing for election. It did have to be art."

It was a highly ambitious manifesto, made in less than promising circumstances. But the scale to which Wallinger pulled it off is evident from his subsequent critical and commercial success. As a sign of his status within the culture, Wallinger was even a couple of years ago the subject of a question on University Challenge. Jeremy Paxman quizzed the students about State Britain, Wallinger's 2006 Turner prize-winning reconstruction of the late Brian Haw's anti-Iraq war protest outside parliament; Ecce Homo, his 1999 life-size sculpture of a Christ figure that was the first occupant of the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square; and Sleeper, the 2004 film of the 10 days Wallinger spent dressed in bear suit in a Berlin museum. Wallinger was watching at the time. "I wasn't actually doing that well, so one of my thoughts was: at least this will give me three answers." Recently he was given Paxman's signed question cards as a present.

The trio of works illustrate another facet of Wallinger's long-term strategic success: the production of a diverse body of work that has nevertheless coalesced around a coherent set of preoccupations that have been characterised – as befits someone for whom wordplay is itself one of those preoccupations – as "the politics of representation and the representation of politics".

It is 25 years since his first London gallery show, and the anniversary is marked by the publication of a comprehensive monograph from Thames & Hudson, which lavishly illustrates the 51-year-old artist's refusal to repeat himself. As the author, Martin Herbert, puts it: "his work is tied together by consistent, if evolving, thematic concerns, and, furthermore, by a conscientious outlook that has real bearing on his long-term resistance to commodifying his art via the adoption of a signature style."

Wallinger works in a third-floor studio in London's Soho, just a street away from the home he shares with his partner, the artist Anna Barriball. The space is littered with the various detritus of previous works: an electric chair, many globes, postcards of Velázquez's portrait of Pope Innocent X – used in a spinning mobile piece entitled I Am Innocent – and a large printout of the entire Quiller-Couch The Oxford Book of English Verse with all the spacings removed, so that on a word processor it reads as having 816,000 characters but only one word. "That came from a commission for Darwin's bicentenary," explains Wallinger. "I thought I could use the development of English language and poetry as an analogy of the evolution of species."

The majority of his work now comes through commission, or sometimes competitions, and he is engaged on the design of two ballets, for Sadler's Wells and the Royal Opera. "But while there is some element of happenstance, it's not a terrible stricture as I wouldn't take on something that I wasn't attracted to. I admit that long gone are the days when I just used to be in my studio painting, and when I finished one piece I'd just start on another, but things still need to be interesting stepping-off points."

Wallinger was born in 1959 and brought up in Chigwell, Essex. His father ran the family fishmonger's shop, before later working in insurance. Early in his career much was made of Wallinger's roots, but while he was, and still is, a loyal West Ham fan – "Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst lived in Chigwell and I got both their autographs at a charity cricket match" – in most other ways he never really matched the Essex boy caricature. "My parents were left wing, intelligent and enlightened people who always encouraged me in wanting to be an artist. We were taken to the ballet." He saw Nureyev and Fonteyn, as well as Baryshnikov and Makarova just before she defected. His sister trained as a dancer and has gone on to have plays produced on Radio 4. "We also went to art galleries and museums. For a long time I thought that's what most people did at the weekends. One street away from where we lived was the Central line, and beyond that, pretty much the landscape that Constable painted. I was aware of that kind of link from the beginning."

Wallinger excelled academically, but there was never much question of his not going to art school, although his experience of Chelsea ultimately "didn't tally with my experience of life and I ended up feeling rather lost and as if I was adopting a false identity." His time at Collett's became a more constructive part of his education, and his arrival at Goldsmiths was a "liberating experience. This was just before the Goldsmiths model became the orthodoxy, and so it was very exciting. I allowed myself to think I could make an object, in three-dimensions even. Or later even a video in which I could work with time; heady stuff."

Wallinger thrived. He subverted the cliché of the bucolic English countryside in works such as Where There's Muck, in which he copied sections of Gainsborough's 1750 double portrait of landowners, Mr and Mrs Andrews, on to sheets of corrugated iron and rough plywood packing cases over which the word "Albion" had been spray-painted graffiti style. It was the first of many arresting combinations of art, history, class and politics that have informed his work ever since. In 1985 his entire degree show was transported to the Anthony Reynolds gallery, and Wallinger was appointed a tutor at Goldsmiths.

"I made a breakthrough when I realised that meaning is something you construct. I was battling through the paint for a long time thinking that somehow I would crack it. But it wasn't until I separated out the elements of my art and began to trust them that I felt I made real progress. It was opening up to an honesty about the ingredients I was using. Not thinking there was some sort of magical sleight of hand that generates art. Actually you can put three things together" – he reaches out and randomly nudges together a phone, a ruler and a photograph on the table in front on him – "and you can say 'have a look at that.' Those three elements still retain their separate identities, but somehow, just by their juxtaposition, something else happens. I liked reaching the point where it felt I was opening up a dialogue with the viewer. That seemed more honest."

The British art scene of the mid-80s was in a "fairly wishy-washy state in which a soft kind of English abstraction was the predominant form and Cork Street was still the centre of things". But he says there was a palpable sense of impending change. The warehouse shows that announced the arrival of what became known as the YBA generation, along with Charles Saatchi's Boundary Road industrial space, altered the landscape. "As a teacher I could see that students' expectations of the art world changed virtually overnight."

Although Wallinger exhibited at the 1993 Young British Artists II show at Saatchi's gallery and at the Royal Academy's 1997 Sensation exhibition, he is slightly older than most of the YBA generation and says that, because he was a teacher, "I did feel removed from the YBA thing. But it almost immediately raised people's game. There was money and there was an audience. Or, to be strictly accurate, there was money – it really was a very targeted strategy to begin with – and the audience came along a bit later."

Wallinger's work soon began to attract both praise and notoriety. His work drawing on images of football came at a time when the game was in public disgrace after the Heysel stadium tragedy, and he painted oil portraits of homeless people. His 1987 work, A Model History, a mini version of Stonehenge in house bricks that dealt with issues of property and land rights at a time when access to Stonehenge was highly contentious, came to the attention of the Evening Standard when it was sold for £3,500. The paper's response was to ask two apprentice brick layers to create something similar for sale at £20.

But it was his work drawing on his lifelong love of horse racing that saw him elevated to the front rank of British art when A Real Work Of Art (1994), an actual racehorse, albeit one that endured a disappointingly injury-hit season, was nominated for the Turner Prize. Prior to this Wallinger had made a lusciously detailed 1992 oil painting of a racehorse under the characteristically multi-meaning title Race, Class, Sex, and a self-portrait as Emily Davison, the suffragette who threw herself in front of the king's horse in 1913. He had even used pantomime horses in his work.

"I actively resisted using racing for quite a long time as it was a love and a passion of mine that I liked to have separate from art. But as an artist, in the end, you use everything, and it became irresistible as it is so rich in ways that tie together some of the themes I had previously tried to articulate: questions of how the breed was created and of lineage, the sheer beauty of the animals, the registering of colours and, of course, the whole idea of betting. But I admit there has been a little bit of shining daylight on magic, and it has taken some of the edge off my fun."

Wallinger says that the Turner prize spotlight was "a fierce crucible to go through in terms of media attention. And there is still a tone of voice adopted about the Turner prize. It's less now than it was, but it's still detectable. That it's a slightly wool-pulling exercise." His work attracted a wide audience once more when Ecce Homo occupied the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in 1999. Since the end of the cold war, Wallinger had sensed that religion would have an increased importance in world events, an appreciation that informed several projects from the mid-90s. "I wanted to have a look at Christianity – my religion, at least for census purposes – as I was interested in how much of our thinking and morality is a residue of it, whether we think we are atheists or not. It also came not long after the Bosnian war, in which your religion was a matter of life and death."

He claims that modern Britain exhibits a "timidity compared with previous generations about works in the public realm, that's part of the reason why Brian Haw's protest was so fascinating. I'd been following it for a couple of years and was very surprised that people weren't more up in arms about this exclusion zone that had been imposed. Not least about the stupidity of making a law essentially to get rid of Brian, just about the only person left in Britain still protesting about the war."

Just before Haws was evicted, Wallinger spoke to him about the project and took 800 photographs. He fabricated exact copies of all Haws's paintings, placards, banners, gifts from the public and general bric-a-brac. By the time it was exhibited at Tate Britain "the museum had become the only place where you could see this thing. And the fact that it was a remake boggled the mind. It wasn't that old trick of co-opting a found object. It was very satisfactory as an artwork, and it highlighted how amazing the document was that Brian had made."

The new book includes a section on "unrealised projects". Future editions may or may not include the still unfulfilled 2008 commission for a 170ft white racehorse in Ebbsfleet in Kent as negotiations continue regarding the proposed £10m-£12m cost. "I won the competition and then the crash happened. But it is all private money, so we are not in a contest for the local hospital or anything like that. I wanted to show in the book that sometimes not finishing a work is part of the process. I did wonder how looking back at so much work, just laid out in the book, would affect my current work, and I've tried not to make it too much of a punctuation mark. The difficult thing is to try to carry on forging ahead and not be restrained with too much of a sense of your own past. You always want to get on with the next thing."

© 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved
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