I used to own a postcard that I’d blu-tack up on the wall wherever I found myself living. It wasn’t eye catching and it wasn’t colourful. It was just a gallery-white card, overlaid with three lines of black Arial that read:
The postcard was based on a text image that had popped up on fly posters in cities across Europe in 1997, much to the confusion of innocent passers-by. It was a throwback to Velazquez’s portraits of Pope Innocent X and famous miscarriages of justice in the Sixties and Seventies – the Birmingham Six, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter – with the added joke that nobody had actually accused Mark Wallinger of being guilty.
Unlike some of his shoutier contemporaries among the Young British Artists (YBAs), Mark Wallinger probably couldn’t have got himself arrested if he’d tried. At the time, he was best known for “A Real Work of Art”, a living, breathing racehorse he had acquired and – in the spirit of Duchamp – deemed a “readymade”. It was shortlisted for the 1995 Turner Prize but lost out to Damien Hirst and his altogether more shocking formaldehyde work.
These days, though, Wallinger is a marquee name. He has represented Britain at the Venice Biennale, won a competition to design Kent’s (as yet unbuilt) answer to Gateshead’s “Angel of the North” and eventually did snag the Turner Prize in 2007 for his “State Britain”, a recreation of anti-war campaigner Brian Haw’s Parliament Square protest against the Iraq conflict.
Superficially, these works don’t have much in common. But though Wallinger refuses to stick to a single medium or theme, there’s always a quizzical (innocent?) humour and subtlety to his projects that could come from no other artist. His work has a wonderful silliness that belies its hefty subject matter: religion, politics and philosophy – as articulated by Benny the Ball from “Top Cat”.
Wallinger has a new show at the twin Savile Row branches of blue-chip Swiss gallery Hauser & Wirth, which now represents him. Titled “ID”, it purports to be an exploration of Freudian notions of the id, the ego and the superego. As far as I can make out from three visits, it suffers from a split personality. Half of it, conveniently confined to one gallery, is the best thing he’s ever done. Of the rest, I’m not so sure.
Let’s start with the good stuff. “Superego” is a revolving recreation of the sign outside the Metropolitan Police headquarters at New Scotland Yard. Its surface is completely mirrored, but try as you might, you will search in vain for your own reflection. The mirrors are set at angles that conceal the images they record as the sign whirrs around. It’s an all-seeing eye, a sinister evocation of mass surveillance. It’s also an utterly absurd proposition: what is the point of a panopticon so perfectly concealed that nobody can see what it’s looking at? Big Brother may be watching you, but there’s ultimately not a lot he can do.
Then there’s “Orrery”, a film recorded on Wallinger’s iPhone, which he blu-tacked to the window of a car as he circled a roundabout in Barkingside. It’s shown on four screens placed on stands in circle formation; standing in the middle, you get lost in the bathos of Tudorbethan pubs, hardware stores and corner shops. Wallinger wants us to meditate on the movements of the solar system with imagery so parochial as to be hilarious, creating a marriage of the sublime and the downright ludicrous.
The same goes for “Ever Since”, a two-second film loop showing us the exterior of a barber shop. A just-visible clock and the twists of its candy-striped pole are the only indications that we are watching a moving image. Watching it, you’re stuck in a truly inane moment of time suspended. I dare you not to smile.
In the north gallery, Wallinger’s balance of high seriousness and banality goes awry. The high walls are ringed by a series of gargantuan black and white acrylic paintings resembling something between images from an MRI scan and the patterns of a Rorschach inkblot test. If the intention was to inspire awe at the size of these things, it hasn’t worked. You would expect to feel dwarfed by these monsters, but the effect is negligible.
Wallinger created them by making symmetrical gestures with paint-covered hands, supposedly exposing the unconscious desires identified by Freud. We’re supposed to see our own desires reflected back in the resulting murk of paint, which if I’m honest is a bit of a stretch. For what it’s worth, I made out a lot of vaguely vaginal outlines – but then so did everyone else who saw them.
The sad truth is that these “id” paintings are hard to distinguish from the kind of tacky monumentalism flogged by the likes of Damien Hirst and Marc Quinn. This makes me suspect that Wallinger might not be so innocent after all; that he created them because they’d be easy to sell.
And who could blame him? You can’t, after all, hang a giant revolving mirror in a board room. This is Wallinger’s first show at Hauser & Wirth. He has a new gallery to please, artistic ambitions to realise and bills to pay. It’s just a little dispiriting to be brought back to earth with such an anticlimactic thud.