‘It’s a good day for bears’

Mark Wallinger, who won the Turner prize on Monday, talks to Charlotte Higgins about making art out of war, growing up in Chigwell – and the wrapping paper he designed for the Guardian

Wednesday December 5, 2007
The Guardian

Not inappropriately, given the work that he showed in the Turner prize shortlist exhibition, Mark Wallinger is a great bear of a man, a little jowly, very genial, and with a mild, quietly spoken, articulate way with him that frequently ratchets up abruptly into roars and snorts of laughter.

It is the morning after the announcement of the Turner prize-giving and Wallinger, who was celebrating till 3.30am at the shortlisted artists’ after-party in a Liverpool hotel, has before him the standard-issue winner’s kit: coffee, mineral water and a packet of Migraleve. “I never knew before what footballers meant when they said ‘It hasn’t really sunk in yet’ – such a dreadful cliche – but now I think I know what they mean. I think I’ve been practising losing for six months …”

“It’s a good day for bears,” he adds with a grin, the teacher Gillian Gibbons, she of the infamous teddy called Muhammad, having just flown in from Sudan.

Sleeper, Wallinger’s film of himself roaming a deserted Berlin gallery at dead of night badly disguised as a bear, was the work he showed in this year’s Turner prize exhibition at Tate Liverpool. But, at least officially, it was not the piece that won him the prize – that was State Britain, a precise reconstruction of Brian Haw’s famous anti-war camp in Parliament Square. That work – 40-odd metres long – was on show at Tate Britain, London, between January and August this year: as these things turn out, Wallinger had documented Haw’s immense protest by way of 600 photographs just four days before 78 police descended on it and removed the bulk of the placards, photographs, flags, information boards and associated flotsam and jetsam that made up this quite extraordinary and motley camp. The removal of the protest was made legal by the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 which, astonishingly, forbade unauthorised protests within one mile of parliament – a fact that Wallinger believes flies in the face of our most basic rights as citizens.

He felt it was “in the public interest to render visible something that this stupid Act has caused to be dismantled”, but of course in recreating the camp in Tate Britain he also transformed it, froze it in time, transplanted it, decontextualised it.

“When we put it in the Tate, someone said it looked a bit like harvest festival – these humble offerings in this great neoclassical building,” he says. “But of course the work starts to question the building, to question where its authority comes from: neoclassical is the language that power and money tends to choose.”

The look of Haw’s camp, its passionate homemadeness and chaos, was also compelling to Wallinger: “I like to have beauty on my side, of course. And there was something truthful and beautiful about the protest, all these things that had either been made by Brian or assembled by him. It had a grim humour, too, and it was also very instructive. It told you, for instance, exactly which MPs had voted for the war and which against; that parliament had spent 700 hours debating foxhunting and seven debating the war.”

He adds: “The campsite looked like it had been through a conflict: it really did express the agony of war, the agony of trying to do anything about it. The fact that Brian’s bed was there made it seem something like a conscious nightmare.”

Adrian Searle, the Guardian’s art critic, likened State Britain to a 19th-century history painting, to works such as Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian. “That’s a pretty high exemplar,” says Wallinger, with a hoot of laughter.

Wallinger, in fact, started out as a painter. Born in Chigwell, Essex, in 1959 (thus just sneaking in, as he says, “under the wire” for the Turner prize, which is for artists under 50), he had a natural gift for drawing as a child, which was encouraged by his parents. “My dad taught me to paint. They were amazingly cultured people, who had left school at 15.” His father, who died in 2001, was a fishmonger.

“It’s quite odd to have been brought up in a place later held up for complete ridicule,” he says. “After my father died it became quite important for me to reclaim it as a proper place . . . About 10 years ago my mother called up and said, ‘You’ll never guess who’s looking for a house in Chigwell.’ I actually do this in pubs, and make people guess. It was Marlon Brando! I told mum she should have offered a house swap for his place in the South Pacific. Anyway, if Chigwell’s good enough for Marlon Brando, it’s good enough for me.” He talks of it as a very particular kind of place: two streets away began fields, and “Sally Gunnell’s dad’s farm”, but it is also on the underground into London, and there were frequent trips west.

“I thought all kids were taken to the National Gallery and the V&A at weekends. We were also a fanatical ballet family. I saw Fonteyn and Nureyev, and Baryshnikov and Makarova dancing with the Kirov before they defected.”

He still loves the ballet and weeps like a baby at it. He would like to do something with dance one day and is talking to Sadler’s Wells, he says.

Wallinger studied at Chelsea College of Art and Goldsmiths, learning to paint but also producing a thesis on James Joyce. “Joyce spoils you for other writers. He’s got everything covered. And inverted commas are so ugly.” He hoots with laughter again. “I only did it because they turned down my first idea, which was on horse racing.” He has a longstanding interest in the turf. He once bought a racehorse and called it A Real Work of Art, also producing a bronze sculpture of it; and he showed two paintings of racehorses in the Turner prize shortlist exhibition of 1995, the year he lost out to Damien Hirst.

At a certain point, about 12 years ago, he stopped painting, fearing the state of being trapped by his facility for it, and decided to “steel myself to work in other ways”. He started making sculpture, and perhaps his most famous work of that kind is Ecce Homo, his Christlike figure that stood on the usually vacant fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in 1999. “It was coming up to the millennium and everyone was very squeamish about the fact that it was meant to commemorate 2,000 years since the birth of Christ. I wanted to put the obvious out there, and I was interested in making Christ as other, and as threatening, as Islam is to a lot of people.”

It’s interesting, perhaps, to relate this eight-year-old major piece to a new, minor work: the wrapping paper he designed for the Guardian and which appeared in the newspaper on Monday, arousing upset and anger among some readers. “There are a lot of mixed messages at Christmas,” he says. “The Christian thing, the Father Christmas thing, the consumerist thing. Fundamentally, though, it’s about Jesus Christ.” His wrapping paper said simply that – Jesus Christ – over and over, baldly and literally.

“Obviously, I came up with it long before there was a teddy bear called Muhammad,” he says. “It’s quite odd, what has become taboo in a name.”

The art Wallinger admires is the old stuff. “I spent three months once at the British School in Rome – during which time I produced one limerick – and it was fantastic. Nothing will ever touch that, the ancient, the modern … I remember I had been there a month, and had begun to tire a little of the pasta thing. [Another roar of laughter.] I went in search of McDonalds’s, knowing there was one near the Pantheon, and I passed a church. Rather guiltily, I thought I’d better go in. So I was walking down through the nave, and someone stuck their 500 lire into a box and up sprang Caravaggio’s St Matthew triptych.” His eyes are alight at the memory of it – that and the thought of the Berninis in the Galleria Borghese. He does a great impression of David’s expression in Bernini’s sculpture of the boy straining back, stone in his sling, about to knock out Goliath with one fantasical, muscular effort.

If Wallinger’s Guardian wrapping paper was seen by some as frivolous, that is a misjudgment: he is often funny, but he is not a thoughtless artist, and his art comes from rigorous reason as well as from the gut-pull of emotion. He is sceptical about the art shenanigans of today, with so much big money swilling around, and the silly prices. “Artists are greedy at the moment. When I left art college, I remember going to a talk called Is There a Future After Art College, and it was generally accepted that the answer was no, but you struggled on regardless. The landscape has certainly changed. People talk about money. There’s nothing interesting in money, is there?

“At the same time,” he adds, “artists have to make a living, and patronage in art has always been an issue, whether it’s church or state or rich bonkers people. It feels like there’s too much art at the moment. A glut of art.” He hoots again. “Oh God! It’s everywhere you turn.”

Mark Wallinger

English painter, sculptor and video artist. He studied in London at the Chelsea School of Art (1978–81) and Goldsmiths’ College (1983–5). From the mid-1980s his work has addressed the traditions and values of British society, its class system and organized religion. The range of approaches he has adopted reflects his wish to have a broad appeal and highlights his roots in a tradition of British left-wing thought. In the early 1990s he began using a personal enthusiasm for horse racing as a theme through which to explore issues of ownership and pedigree. Race Class Sex (oil on canvas, four parts, each 2.3×3 m, London, Saatchi Gal.), consists of four highly finished renderings of thoroughbred race-horses. As well as evoking the equestrian portraiture of George Stubbs, these works also direct attention toward issues of identity and the inheritance of social structures. This thematic culminated in A Real Work of Art (1994), a conceptual work involving the syndicate-backed purchase of a filly and its redesignation as a ready-made turned to socio-critical ends. In the late 1990s Wallinger shifted his focus to a questioning of institutionalized spirituality and religion. In Angel (1997; London, Saatchi Gal.), a projected video installation, lasting 7’30”, he appears as a blind man at the bottom of an escalator, reciting the opening verses of St. John’s Gospel with the tape played backwards to give the diction a stilted quality. The skepticism and irreverence of his work, typical of his humorous observational approach, were downplayed in a later public sculpture commissioned for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square: Ecce Homo (marbleized resin, barbed wire, gold leaf, 1999). Close to the edge of the massive stone plinth, Wallinger placed a life-sized cast of a young man representing Christ being presented by Pontius Pilate to the Judeans. Contrasting with the monumentality of the surrounding public statuary and architecture, this work suggested contemporary relevance for themes of suffering and redemption, and a plea for racial and religious tolerance. Wallinger has described his approach in terms of the address of the chorus to the audience in classical Greek theatre, suggesting both an authentic absorption and personal investment in the work as well as a real critical distance. By this he aims to show how personal experience can be located within a wider political framework. Wallinger was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1995, and in 1998 he was awarded the Henry Moore Fellowship at the British School in Rome.

Ecco Homo 

State Britain

American Flag

The Turner Prize – Tate Liverpool 2007

The Turner Prize has travelled outside London for the first time in its 23-year history, and you can’t help but notice that this daring excursion is making its organisers feel just a little anxious. In the capital, you see, there are enough pseuds on hand: types in architectural spectacles who are perfectly at ease ignoring the emperor’s-new-clothes element of the competition, and who wouldn’t be remotely embarrassed about discussing, in sombre tones, a film of a man in a bear suit prowling an empty art gallery. But what about Liverpool, soon to be European Capital of Culture? Won’t its citizens simply laugh out loud at the ‘art’ that has been so kindly delivered to them?

In my view, it would be to their credit if they did, but this is obviously not quite the reaction the Tate is after. Desperate to nip the sniggering in the bud, it has issued what reads like a coded warning. Across the city hang banners that read: ‘We’re open to you. Are you open to us?’ If I were a Liverpudlian, this veiled threat – ‘Don’t let everyone else think that you’re oiks!’ – would make me boil with fury. What does it say when one of our greatest galleries is reduced to telling off potential visitors – accusing them of cultural bigotry, in fact – in order to persuade them to see one of its most important shows? It says, I’m afraid, that the problem lies not with the audience, but with the work. Good work, however ‘difficult’, speaks for itself. People will want to see it.

But back to that bear. The four short-listed artists are: Mark Wallinger, Mike Nelson, Zarina Bhimji and Nathan Coley. Wallinger, who I predict will be the eventual winner, has been nominated for State Britain, his reconstruction of Brian Haw’s anti-war protest in Parliament Square. However, it is one of the many weirdnesses of the Turner Prize exhibition that it does not always include the work for which an artist was nominated and, in Liverpool, Wallinger is showing Sleeper (2004-5), a two-and-a-half-hour film in which he can be seen wearing a bear suit and gallivanting around the glinting boxes that comprise Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin – a performance he apparently acted out over 10 nights. As movies go, I can’t exactly recommend it. For real bear action try Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man. This bear, when he finally appears, spends his time wandering forlornly across the gallery, sometimes pawing the glass windows, sometimes breaking into a trot. It’s sweet – and pretty funny, if you know what Wallinger looks like (he is 48 and resembles an advertising executive who’s had one too many expense account lunches) – but only for about three minutes. As for its ‘meaning’, I’d have been lost had it not been for the Tate’s notes. Here’s a summary: the bear is the emblem of Berlin which, during the Cold War, was inhabited by ‘sleepers’, surveillance operators who wore disguise; the work, then, is about identity and national memory. A curator informed us that the installation of the piece – you go into a black box to watch the film – is also significant, it being the precise opposite of a van der Rohe glass prism. I wasn’t sure about this – aren’t all cinemas black boxes? – but he was so tragically earnest (from his manner, you’d have thought he was talking about the Armenian genocide, not a grown man in a bear suit), that I didn’t feel able to stick up my hand. Sorry.

From here, amazingly, it’s downhill all the way. Mike Nelson’s piece is called Amnesiac Shrine. In the 1990s, Nelson invented a mythical gang of bikers called the Amnesiacs, and he has turned to them again for ‘their help’ in building this work, subtitled The misplacement (a futurological fable): mirrored cubes – inverted – with the reflection of an inner psyche as represented by a metaphorical landscape 2007. I don’t know how, exactly, the Amnesiacs ‘helped’ Nelson, since they don’t exist, but the piece consists of two piles of driftwood with bits of red plastic cut to look like flames attached to them and four ‘rooms’ into which you can see only through a hole in the wall. Inside these rooms are piles of sand and fairy lights which, thanks to strategically placed mirrors, seem to extend into infinity, like the desert. It’s about the Iraq war, I’d guess, but with its reliance on repetition, it’s desperately flat and unengaging.

Zarina Bhimji is also preoccupied with conflict. Her exhibited work consists of seven photographs and a film, Waiting, made in a sisal rope factory, all of which are the result of her recent travels in India and East Africa – journeys that she researched by reading ‘the biographies of policy makers in the shaping of British power within these countries’. The photographs are of crumbling walls, one of which has a row of guns leaning against it, and are notable for their lack of a human presence. The idea is that you read them as you would a face; they speak of pain and dispossession. Waiting is beautifully shot but, populated only with the ghostly by-products of rope-making, it is also intensely boring. In art, tedium is the one unpardonable crime.

Still, never mind. When it comes to sheer dullness, Nathan Coley takes home all the prizes. Coley is interested in the ‘built environment’ and, if they’re not careful, visitors will trip over two of his commentaries on it as they enter and leave the room where his stuff is gathered. At either door is a piece called Untitled (Threshold Sculpture) 2007: a low length of oak. At the press view, a reporter repeatedly asked one of the exhibition’s curators whether people would realise that this was part of the show. I thought it was a fair question. Stepping over the ‘sculptures’ myself, I assumed they’d been put there by the Tate. Now I know better, I still cannot see the point of them, and refuse to start weaving laborious metaphors about boundaries, real and perceived; my own glasses are not sufficiently architectural enough for that. Elsewhere in the room you can see There Will Be No Miracles Here, in which those words are spelt in lightbulbs and mounted on a scaffold. I’ll resist using this phrase as a neat summing up of the entire exhibition, and tell you instead that it was inspired by the decree of a 17th-century French king in an effort to put state law above the rule of God, and is another way in which Coley explores how ‘power can be inferred through public space’. Whatever. I thought it was banal, like everything else in this show bar our antic bear – and I wonder how it got here.

In London, as a panicky sop to those who feel the Turner’s absence there this year, you can see The Turner Prize: a Retropective; the work of previous winners of the prize. As an exhibition, it feels oddly scrappy but it contains enough work – exciting, even now – to show that, in the past, the prize has had at least some outstanding winners (Howard Hodgkin, Grayson Perry, Damien Hirst). In other words, it does not have to be this way. So what, this year, went wrong? Oh, there are a hundred reasons to visit Liverpool, a great and stirring city, but I cannot in all conscience tell you that the 2007 Turner Prize show is one of them.

Article from The Guardian Art Section