Mark Wallinger is one of those artists who has no coherent style: he has dressed up in bear suits, proposed a giant white horse as a public sculpture, created a mirror TARDIS and taken his turn on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square.
Self Portrait Times New Roman, 2012
Mark Wallinger is perhaps most well know for State Britain (2007), an accurate replica of Brian Haw’s anti-Iraq war protest camp that sprawled outside the Houses of Parliament until its removal in May 2006 under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act.
Considering Wallinger’s disparate interests and the usual lack of cohesion in his oeuvre, what surprised me about his current exhibition at the BALTIC were the threads that weave the works on display together. There are only four works of art in the main exhibition space (though others occupy the outside of the building and the stairwell), and they work wonderfully together, talking across the room, playing off each other.If the BALTIC is approached across the Tyne via the Millennium Bridge, the first work we see is Self Portrait (Times New Roman), a giant letter ‘I’ on a banner in that generic and ubiquitous font. It is to my mind the only ostentatious element is Wallinger’s colonization of the gallery. Inside, MARK is also a kind of self-portrait, but a far more understated one. With his giant ‘I’ Wallinger claims a whole wall, but with MARK he adopts one brick at a time, chalking his name on bricks around London, reclaiming the urban territory with his ‘mark’, yet only briefly, since we know the chalk will wash away in the rain. These modestly marked bricks are recorded in a series of photographs that plays on a screen in the gallery.
This work shares affinities with The Other Wall, a wall built into the gallery on one side, with each brick numbered in chalk and then randomly placed during construction. This was the only work I found a little harder to grasp, all concept over aesthetic. It is about randomly arranged objects, the millions of permutations of the same bricks. And this is reflected in the work that dominates the space: 10000000000000000, a giant chessboard covered in beach pebbles, also arranged at random. The different shades of pebble create patterns, darker areas that appear like clouds across the sea and lighter areas like spots of sunlight. Perhaps if my mind were mathematically inclined the wall full of numbered bricks would form similar patterns, with clusters of numbers creating ‘dark’ and ‘light’ areas according to whether they were prime or not. I also imagine the gallery assistants laying out the pebbles, one by one, slowly. And perhaps this is one connection with the 80-minute video that plays on the far wall, Construction Site, which Wallinger sees as a homage to manual labour.
In Construction Site we see three men building a scaffold on a pebbly beach. The links between the order of the pebbles in the gallery space and the chaos of the pebbles on the beach is clear, but perhaps there is also a link in the methodical labour inherent in both pieces, and also in The Other Wall. As we watch them build the scaffold, all the action below the horizon line until the structure is complete and the men can rise above it, I am reminded of the Millet painting The Gleaners in which the women collecting the left-over crop are hunched beneath the horizon line in a reflection of their status in society. But this time, in Wallinger’s piece, the labourers gain from their toil, at least symbolically. Yet, watching them, I cannot help but think ‘the foolish man built a house upon the sand’, and wonder whether Wallinger is commenting on the futility of labour rather than paying homage to it: perhaps this piece is about the endless search for a utopia that lies just out of reach? In that sense it makes me think of Francis Alÿs, with works such as Rehearsal I in which we see a red Volkswagen repeatedly trying to ascend a hill, while the sound of a brass band rehearsing plays in the background. While the band plays the car creeps up the hill; as soon as the tune breaks down, the car stops and rolls back down the hill, only to begin its Sisyphean task again. Is this a dystopian view of the world in which all human endeavour comes to nothing? Or is Alÿs reflecting on the courage of carrying on despite repeated failure? For me, Wallinger’s three workers hold this same ambivalence. After they have constructed their scaffold and reached the top, they deconstruct it to return to an empty beach, and the thing goes round again, on a loop. In fact Construction Site seems to hold a lot more than it initially lets on: as well as thinking about the subject of this piece, Wallinger has also clearly taken great pains in its composition, since the scaffolding forms a Modernist grid at the centre, while the lines of the beach and horizon divide the flat plane of the screen, and I think of Mark Rothko, Piet Mondrian, Agnes Martin, Ellsworth Kelly, and the film becomes a painting in motion.
Construction Site, 2011
There are so many more ways in which these works play off each other, probably in unintended as well as intended ways, making this a thoughtful and thought-provoking exhibition that is refreshingly unpretentious and accessible on many levels. A circular discussion takes place between all these works, and there’s still room for you to join in.