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Three degrees of separation: Interview with artist Mark Wallinger

Absence is as important as presence in Mark Wallinger’s new works on show

Not many artists attempt to address the meaning and purpose of religion in society, but Mark Wallinger has never been one to blanch at big subjects. “Ecce homo”, his life-sized figure of Christ which occupied the empty plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square between 1999-2000, is just one work addressing religion and national identity which have marked out this Chigwell-born conceptualist as one of Britain’s most significant artists. When Wallinger represented the UK at the 2001 Venice Biennale, he made a decorative façade for the pavilion and recast the Union Jack in the green and orange of the Irish tricolour. He is responsible for one of the most bizarre art works of recent times, the race horse which ran in the 1994 flat season under the name “A real work of art”. Lately, he has been working in film and video, but in no less challenging ways.

The Art Newspaper: “Third generation” is a film piece based on the home movies of the Ascher family, one of the many families who gave their homemade movies to the collection of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. How did the work come about?

Mark Wallinger: I had been to Germany a number of times, but never to Berlin. In 2001, I was in Berlin for a year on a DAAD [Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst] award, and stayed an extra year. It’s quite curious that the first two works to come out of that experience have been to do with the Glienicke Bridge [a crossing point between West Berlin and the East German Potsdam] and Jewish history in Germany which you might have picked as two fairly obvious things before you had ever got there.

TAN: But then, these two events do tend to eclipse any other ideas of Berlin, especially to an outsider and first-time visitor.

MW: That’s true. I think we have got a more distant or cosy view of history in this country, whereas in Berlin you’re in a place that was divided until 14 years ago. Even though the Wall isn’t there anymore, one’s immediately aware of when one’s strayed from West to East and vice-versa. And because Berlin was bombed so severely, it’s still a city with vast gaps in it; the scars are there for all to see.

TAN: What led to your decision to make work in the Jewish Museum?

MW: Initially, I found the notion of a Jewish Museum in Germany defined by race and creed problematic and I thought Daniel Libeskind’s design very problematic. It’s supposed to be a broken Star of David in its groundplan, but I don’t know how much more you need to tweak it for it to resemble a broken swastika. As an experience, it’s a little bit like being inside a kind of retro-expressionist cartoon. I don’t think you can say something about history or take history and make it into a psychological event theme park. Everywhere there are labels telling you Libeskind wants you to feel this, that and the other. Because of history, it’s quite hard for Berliners to be critical of this museum because that then tends to get interpreted as anti-Semitism. In a way, there’s a kind of taboo around the very thing that this museum should be revealing; it’s like the resistance between two positive poles and it actually serves to stop dialogue.

TAN: As if it is a definitive statement.

MW: Well, it is. To begin with, I was tentatively moving towards the point where I was thinking I was going to make something of a polemical work about this edifice. If you can shut your mind to the manipulative process of being manoeuvred around the building, the museum contains some fantastic things, not least these bits of home movies which are very personal documents that obviously were not made for public consumption. Those were the things that really tugged at me. At the same time, you’re still turning yourself inside out trying to view this as if you were a German of this generation. How does one feel about this? What’s one supposed to do? I think that the most familiar complaint from Germans younger than myself was, OK, we’re guilty: now what?

TAN: Somehow these fragments of family film defy institutionalisation.

MW: I think so, and that naiveté and giving to the camera the whole time because there is someone behind that camera who is intimate to those people; it’s a very different kind of gaze that we’re dealing with, one that is almost too guileless compared to the scrutiny of the people going around the museum.

TAN: You filmed the museum visitors looking at someone else’s family footage and then made another film of that, framed by neutral space: three stages, three generations, of looking.

MW: I think—because you have to have an instinct to make these things rather than a manifesto—that I was also engaged by something personal to me. When I was growing up there was a television programme, “All our yesterdays”, that seemed to be on all the time. It was wartime footage—in those days there used to be a war movie on the TV every Saturday night, so we were brought up on the war: you had Hollywood war and then you had black-and-white war, and then, when one got older, there was less and less of that. So I’ve moved one generation away from that myself, and so in a sense the dead space in that last framing is for me, in a way.

TAN: Blank space is a recurring element in your new work. It’s at the heart of “Via dolorosa”, another piece on show at Anthony Reynolds, which consists of 20 minutes of the Zefferelli movie “Jesus of Nazareth”, but with 90% of the screen image obliterated from the centre. All you can see is a sliver of action—Christ’s progress from his condemnation to death by Pilate to his crucifixion—taking place around the edge. “The lark ascending”, screened recently in London, also consists of an empty, dark screen which, over 30 minutes, gradually gets brighter to the sound of the song of larks that has been slowed and then gathers momentum.

MW: In some ways, all my video work has been as much concerned with the nature of the medium as any overt subject matter. I’ve used original footage, stuff recorded from TV, played with time, run things slower, backwards. I’m not interested in making narrative film. In every video I’ve made, the camera never moves, so it’s like a perspective drawing: the artist and the viewer share the same virtual space. If I then appropriate existent footage, I try and retain this distance. The remaining imagery in “Via dolorosa” frames the void in the middle and one tries to fill in the blanks or fills it in with one’s knowledge of the story, but it also makes you very aware of the mechanics of the filming—the way the cuts and pans are made. The rhetoric is laid bare.

TAN: So much of your work seems to be about processes of communication: how we read and interpret the things we see and hear—and without too much intervention by the artist into the material you are presenting.

MW: Well, no names, no pack drill, but there’s a lot of stupid effort in the art world these days, and a lot of the time you wonder, what for? I like working in a way which is perfectly obvious to the viewer—or after a while it’s obvious—what I, as the artist, have done. I think that there is a way of approaching video and film that doesn’t have to pretend to be innocent, but can actually say that, because of all this rhetoric that we have been trained in, and because we are very sophisticated readers-in of meaning, an artist does not actually have to do very much. At the moment, I am about the least effort I can manage.

Biography

Born: 1959. Lives and works in London. Education: 1978-81 Chelsea School of Art, London 1983-85 MA, Goldsmith's College, London. Currently showing: Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London (until 21 Feb). Shows include: 2003: Christmas tree, Tate Britain, London; Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich 2001: Whitechapel Art Gallery, London; British Pavilion; 49th Venice Biennale, Venice; University Museum of Natural History, Oxford 2000: Tate Gallery, Liverpool; British School, Rome 1999: Fourth Plinth, Trafalgar Square, London; Portikus, Frankfurt 1998: Delfina, London 1995: Serpentine Gallery, London; Ikon Gallery, Birmingham 1991: ICA, London touring to Manchester City Art Gallery; Daniel Newburg Gallery, New York; Capital, Grey Art Gallery, New York 1988: Riverside Studios, London; Castle Museum, Nottingham

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 144 February 2004