Wallinger’s Popular Touch

by Martin Gayford

Some people boast of having “good wars.” Mark Wallinger is having a good credit crunch.

He was something of a misfit during the Britart boom. Wallinger is older than Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and their cohorts -- he turns 50 this year -- and his work seemed more quirky than glitzy. Nowadays, he looks increasingly like an artist for the new era. He is serious, politically aware and able to come up with images that are simple and compelling.

Wallinger’s projected sculpture of a giant white horse at Ebbsfleet in Kent may turn out to be the most successful work of public art to be put up in the U.K. since Antony Gormley’s “Angel of the North” more than 10 years ago.

Scarcely a week after it was announced that he had won the Ebbsfleet competition, an exhibition, “The Russian Linesman: Frontiers, Borders and Thresholds,” opened at the Hayward Gallery that Wallinger has curated.

This London show gives further insight into his mindset. While Wallinger emerges as an intellectual, he is an egghead with a popular touch. The title of the show comes from a celebrated incident in soccer history. At the final of the 1966 World Cup, Tofik Bakhramov, a match official from Soviet Azerbaijan who was colloquially though inaccurately known as “the Russian linesman,” ruled that the ball had crossed the line, and thus that a crucial goal had been scored by England -- a decision naturally disputed by supporters of the rival team, Germany.

Odd Borders

For Wallinger, that incident introduces the subject of boundaries, borders and fine distinctions. His show consists of a rich and intermittently intriguing assembly of oddments. It contains contemporary art as well as objects from the past, including an engraving by Durer, a recording of James Joyce reading “Finnegans Wake” and a cast of an ancient sculpture.

All of the items are connected with Wallinger’s theme of the dividing line between this and that. There is much entertainment to be had from browsing through this updated cabinet of curiosities. The most striking piece is a work by Wallinger himself, “Time and Relative Dimensions in Space” (2001).

It’s a reproduction of the now archaic police telephone booth in which the hero of the long-running science-fiction television series “Doctor Who” travels through time. This object is named the “Tardis,” which is an acronym for the words of Wallinger’s title. To understand it you have to be soaked in British popular culture.

Police telephone booths have almost disappeared from the streets since Doctor Who was first screened in the 1960s. If you haven’t seen the program, you’ll find it mystifying. If you have, like generations of U.K. teenagers, you’ll get the point of Wallinger’s transformation. His Tardis has a polished, mirror surface so that from some angles it almost seems to vanish, warping the space around it.

Ancient Horses

The “Equus Ebbsfleet” is rooted further back in British folklore. Giant horses were carved into the hills of Britain before the Romans came. It’s a national symbol, indeed a pre- national symbol, though also open to a variety of interpretations. Wallinger points out that race horses are the product of breeding from imported Arab stallions.

Similarly, the modern inhabitants of Britain are descended from successive immigrants, including those Romans, the Angles and the Saxons, most of whom arrived on the coast of Kent and made their way to London past the projected site of the Horse.

In the Ebbsfleet Horse, Wallinger has come up with an apt emblem for multicultural, 21st-century Britain. It should be around long after the current credit crunch becomes history.

The Russian Linesman” runs through May 4 at the Hayward Gallery, London. For more information, go to http://www.haywardgallery.org.uk or call +44-871-663-2501.

Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.

To contact the writer on the story: Martin Gayford in London at martin@cgayford.freeserve.co.uk.

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