A stack of canvases leans against the wall in Mark Wallinger’s London studio. They are made to his personal specifications, twice his height and the width of his arm-span, the same size as the paintings in his recent id series. But it’s only when one stands next to them that one understands how truly monumental those paintings are.
The 66 id paintings, created during a “creative frenzy” which started in the summer of 2015, were exhibited for the first time in London last year and now form the core of an exhibition which arrives in Scotland next month to occupy both the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh and DCA in Dundee. Created using only his hands and black acrylic paint, they are part-painting, part-performance, resembling Rorschach ink blots, or some profound plundering of the psyche. In the Scottish exhibition, the id paintings will be split between the two venues forming a kind of spine around which other related works will be placed.
There’s no escaping the physicality of them. A half-finished carton of black acrylic sits on the desk in front of us as we speak. Paint is smeared on the table, the floor, and under Wallinger’s fingernails. He must have got covered in it, I venture. “I remember a couple of times I got home and I had this large swathe of black paint through my hair,” he laughs. “I looked like some tragic bloke trying to look younger by the crudest methods imaginable.”
Wallinger laughs a lot. He speaks cautiously, frequently trailing off mid-sentence, or undermining highly intelligent comments with a self-deprecating chuckle. From time to time, he puffs, thoughtfully, on a vapour cigarette. For all that the id paintings look like a self laid bare on a grand scale, he is no egomaniac.
Now 57, Wallinger has spent 20 years at the forefront of British contemporary art. He has won the Turner Prize, represented the UK at the Venice Biennale, exhibited at the Tate, curated a show for the Hayward. He taught many of the Young British Artists at Goldsmiths, showed with them in Sensation and was collected by Saatchi, but remained one step removed from the group as a whole.
His exceptionally varied body of work coalesces around ideas to with identity, perception, history, politics. You might know him as the man behind State Britain, the recreation of Brian Haw’s anti-war protest inside Tate Britain, or his life-size Christ figure, Ecce Home, the first work to be shown on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth. Or for winning the Turner Prize by wandering around the foyer of Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie dressed as a bear, or buying a race horse which he called A Real Work of Art. But you might not know all four were by the same artist.
Beginning to paint with his hands was “a eureka moment”. “It’s not very often that something occurs in the studio. As an artist, you’ve got the whole weight of art history behind you, and in your own tiny way you’re trying to come up with something original, not for the sake of it, but as some kind of utterance that feels both direct and communicative. Suddenly, it simplified everything, I didn’t need 100-odd brushes, the scale was right, the activity was intense and instinctive.”
He had invented, he realises, “a little machine for creating”. Within a set of rigorous perameters - only black, each to be completed in a singing “sitting”, bilateral symmetry, each canvas worked at one end then inverted – he could be spontaneous. “It was both intense and kind of addictive as well.” That laugh again. “And very early on a painting would acquire its own characteristics, or demand a certain kind of treatment. They had a strange logic.”
The fact that the whole thing reeks of Freud is far from accidental. “I’ve been in analysis for two and a half years, I gave up drink two years ago now. Although references to psychoanalysis were in my work before then, there was a personal taking stock which you could say was part of this, a sort of facing up to stuff. I think you’ve got to put something of yourself on the line, really, for work to have anything of worth. There’s got to be some limit that you feel you’re pushing at, that you’re at the edge of being entirely comfortable with. I think that’s important.”
Wallinger was born in Chigwell Essex, the trains going east on the Central Line rattling past his bedroom. His father was a fishmonger who later worked in insurance. He was brought up with left-wing politics and weekend visits to London galleries and museums. “I wanted to be an artist from when I was very small. I was a fan of art, I found art incredible and inspiring and it mattered to me.”
He went to Chelsea School of Art, but found himself adrift in the painting department at the tail end of abstract expressionism. An MA at Goldsmiths opened up the possibility of working across genres (“I don’t know who I was asking permission from, but there was this sense of, ‘Am I allowed to make a sculpture?’), and a spell working in a left-wing bookshop made him realise he had plenty to say.
“There was a lot of apolitical formal esperanto art being made that was rootless and therefore very dull. So there were certain things to do with identity that [I wanted to] address. Joyce’s Ulysses has always been talismanic for me, it’s probably the greatest work of modernist writing of the 20th century, and yet it is the best way of knowing what Dublin was like in 1904. I think one needs to identify the particular in order to find the general, which is what art does.”
He wanted to critique the way a certain set of cultural references were being used by the Tory party in the early Thatcher years. “I hate work that’s didactic, I like works in which the viewer is in danger of not knowing which way to jump. I’m not teaching you a lesson, and there are no dark arts, but maybe this is an interesting way of looking at something.”
An aptitude for having a finger on the pulse combined with what one art critic (invoking Basil Fawlty) called “his lack of fear of the bleeding obvious”. State Britain placed Brian Haw’s protest at the heart of the Tate at the very moment it was being forcibly removed from Parliament Square. A work in the current show, Ego, was made by photographing his hands with his iPhone and placing them to look like the hands of God and Adam in the Cistine Chapel. It’s so simple it took a genius to think it up.
The ability to spot the extraordinary in the mundane gives his art a frisson of magic, like the oak tree in the middle of a roundabout near his childhood home, which is the focus of his film work Orrery. “I suppose that’s the other important thing to me, making works that hinge on a kind of recognition, or a revelatory moment. It’s generally a rather wonderful moment, and if you can hang on to it yourself and transmit it or transmute it in some kind of way, other people might get some of the same kick out of it. Orrery is just a roundabout with a tree in the middle of it, but it’s also the four seasons, it’s a planetary thing, and it’s where I used to go to take my library books back!”
A master of astute observation, I wonder what he has to say about the political times in which we now find ourselves. “It’s very weird world we’re in,” he says, rubbing his face with his hands. “At the moment it feels like Trump’s going to implode from his own ridiculousness, unfortunately things could turn much more sinister than that. It’s just too crazy to get much of a handle on, isn’t it? I can’t remember feeling so… perilous.
“One can call Trump all the names under the sun, but decisions made through ignorance are really terrifying, aren’t they? There’s not really anything we need to unmask either. We all know where we are. It’s not, ‘Let me through, I’m an artist’,” he laughs again, then looks serious. “It’s down to everyone, really.” ■
*Mark Wallinger: Mark is at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh and DCA, Dundee, 4 March to 4 June