Conceptual without cliché

May 25, 2001

Mark Wallinger struck a chord with his Ecce Homo in London's Trafalgar Square. Now he hopes to make his mark at the Venice Biennale, the most prestigious visual arts festival in the world. Helen Hague reports

A few years ago, fly posters declaring "Mark Wallinger is Innocent" began popping up around London. At the time, Wallinger, a conceptual artist, was little known. But that has all changed. Now, feted by the art world, Wallinger will represent Britain at next month's Venice Biennale - the oldest and most prestigious visual arts festival in the world.

It was Wallinger who put a life-sized sculpture of Christ on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square as we drifted into the new millennium. The critical acclaim that greeted the hugely affecting Ecce Homo - captured at the moment Pontius Pilate hands him to the lynch mob - clinched his selection for the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale. It is not something an artist can pitch for. Previous participants have included Henry Moore, Lucian Freud, and Rachael Whiteread.

Although Wallinger, 41, has never had to struggle for artistic recognition - London's Anthony Reynolds Gallery showed his final-year show from Goldsmiths College - his work has enjoyed greater visibility of late. Last week, his installation at the Oxford Museum of Natural History opened - two replica Dr Who Tardis police boxes. These are his playful and engaging response to a building crammed full of reconstructed dinosaurs, geological fragments, astonishing objects and rich layers of scholarship where the spirits of Charles Darwin, John Ruskin and Lewis Carroll still linger. Wallinger has always jibbed at the opposition between high and low culture. So invoking Dr Who 's time travels in a place resembling a wondrous giant time capsule, is most apposite. After all, he remarks: "The doctor wasn't a GP, was he? Popular culture doesn't normally get this kind of anthropology."

But Wallinger's selection for the Biennale marks his move to the big time. Although reluctant to reveal much about his contributions, he admits he sees the whole notion of national pavilions as slightly bizarre, and says a couple of the eight works he will be showing will "allude to or make somewhat ridiculous that notion of the art Olympics".

His work, generally, is steeped in cultural references from the Bible and William Shakespeare to football-terrace chants and the blundering comedy of Tommy Cooper and Harry Worth. It is a very English sensibility, well attuned to the ingrained absurdities of a far from moribund class system.

But there is no such thing as a typical Wallinger. His work can be deeply political, but never finger-jabbingly didactic. Take his 1990 series Capital , paintings of friends posing as homeless people outside the Bank of England, rendered lavishly, full-length in oils, in the manner of 18th-century status portraiture. They are unsettling and incongruous images of Thatcher-era Britain.

For a while he was known as "the horse bloke" - for his exploration of class breeding and bloodlines in the sport he loves. Race , Class , Sex , sleekly beautiful oil paintings of horses, transformed by their captions, were part of his bid for the Turner Prize in 1995, the year Damien Hirst took the accolade. Wallinger even bought a racehorse called A Real Work of Art, kitted out in the suffragette colours of Green, White and Violet - signifying Give Women Votes.

The photograph Self Portrait as Emily Davison shows him standing, clad in his jockey silks, wearing lipstick, inspired by the suffragette's martyrdom, when she threw herself in front of the king's horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913.

Wallinger is always alert to avoiding cliché, hence his take on the crucifixion, Ecce Homo . He wanted his Christ to be vulnerable - and to show Christianity as "slightly other, almost as opaque as Islam is to the West". In the video Angel , shot at London Underground's Northern Line station and scheduled at Venice, a strange figure in dark glasses and white shirt - played by Wallinger - moves his white stick from side to side, at the foot of an escalator, flanked by passengers going up and down on either side. He intones the first verses of St John's Gospel, "In the beginning was the Word", in a strangulated medieval-sounding dialect before ascending to the top. This is Wallinger as Blind Faith, a weirdly allegorical character who speaks against a soundtrack of Handel's Zadok the Priest . The music rises to a crescendo as he ascends, the trio of escalators around him going up and down, mimicking the imagery of the Last Judgement. Wallinger spoke the passage backwards phonetically and then reversed the film - so those coming down have their back to camera.

The nonsense touches on a deeper sense - artist as prankster whose profundity is lightly worn. In this, James Joyce is a key influence. Wallinger wrote a dissertation on Ulysses when studying at Chelsea and relishes wordplay in his art. He cites Joyce's "in the beginning was the pun" like a quasi-scriptural authority.

It is Joyce's notion of "finding epiphanies within the everyday and quotidian" that infuses Wallinger's recent work. He chose the title Credo for his Liverpool show because "it seemed that perhaps now the ultimate blasphemy is to believe in anything - to say I believe is almost inflammatory". He cites the Mark Wallinger is Innocent posters as a "fatuous claim" that appears to propose "a genuine need or want" - the sort of playful yet serious approach that characterises much of his work.

Often bracketed with the "Young British Art" scene of the late 1980s, Wallinger has never considered himself to be part of it - although after finishing his masters at Goldsmiths in 1985, he taught some of its members. In a swingeing critique, Fool Britannia , a book he co-edited with Mary Warnock last year, he broke with the cosy, back-slapping ethos that pervades sections of the contemporary art world.

He railed against "the stifling effects of the New Academy", a climate where "artists merely had to ring the right bells to get the Pavlovian critics slavering for interpretation. What is lamentable on Jerry Springer is presentable in the gallery. Within this fools' paradise, if you look like an artist and live like an artist, then you are indeed an artist," he wrote.

Wallinger's credo goes like this: "Art should engage, articulate, problematise, open new ways of seeing, place the viewer in jeopardy of his and her received opinions, move the artist to the limit of what he or she knows or believes, excite, incite, entertain, annoy, get under the skin, and when you're done with it, it should nag at you to go back and take another look."

Wallinger's best works - Ecce Homo and Threshold to the Kingdom (airport lounge as heaven) - definitely shape up to this very tall order. In a sense, he is very much in the contemporary art world, though not quite of it. Expect some manifestation of Ecce Homo in Venice, and maybe a Tardis. And if you are lucky, you may even catch an epiphany or two.

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