Saturday, March 14, 2009

Mak Wallinger's Horse of Another Colour

Mark Wallinger’s Horse of Another Colour

This article appeared in the March 2009 edition of Socialist Review.

The selection of Mark Wallinger’s proposal for a giant White Horse for Ebbsfleet International Station site in Kent is an event of some cultural significance.

In terms of size alone it will be impressive, if not disturbing. An exact replica of a white stallion, it will be 164 feet tall, two and a half times higher than the Angel of the North and roughly the same height as Nelson’s Column, and stand on an area the size of fifty football pitches, making it by far the largest work of public art in Britain.

It is testimony to the huge shift in British public attitudes to modern art that has taken place over the last decade or so.. Britain has been very conservative in these matters: in the thirties Rima, Jacob Epstein’s mild relief sculpture in Hyde Park, was repeatedly defaced and in the sixties The National Gallery’s purchase of a Cezanne(!) was greeted with howls of derision.

The way the public warmed to the Angel of the North in 1998 was one definite sign of the shift, the success of Tate Modern another It confirms the trend whereas until recently a commission such as this would have been almost unthinkable, the White Horse seems to have been met with substantial approval.

As far as local opinion is concerned there is a bit of pattern with this kind of project. The announcement and construction is met with a certain hostility but after a while the new arrival becomes familiar, accepted as part of the landscape, and thereafter an object of local pride. The White Horse is likely to follow this pattern, except with less initial hostility.

Certainly it meets the standard requirement of such a monument in that it combines a number of local and historical references. Kent is a horse breeding area and Horsa, the semi- mythological Anglo-Saxon figure, who gave his name to the horse, allegedly landed at nearby Thanet in the fifth century, with the result that a white horse became the emblem of Kent. There are nods in the direction of the Bronze Age White Horse of Uffington in Berkshire and its modern Folkestone equivalent, as well as the underlying chalk and the White Cliffs of Dover. Though, significantly, Wallinger resisted pressure from Kent Council to depict the horse prancing or rampant as in, the Kent emblem, preferring the less stylised, unheroic image of a grazing horse.

Both Wallinger and his work come distinctly ’from left field’ as it were. Wallinger is best known for his 2007 Turner Prize winning piece State Britain, an exact recreation in Tate Britain of Brian Haw’s anti-Iraq war protest in Parliament Square. In itself this doesn’t make the White Horse good or bad but it does suggest a closer look at Wallinger’s thought processes, especially as he always been quite an ‘intellectual’ theorised artist.

In fact Wallinger has long been making artwork with ‘horse’ motifs in which horse racing / breeding serve as a analogue or symbol of the class system , English identity and other issues. In 1992 he made a series of photo-realist paintings of horses called ‘Race, Class and Sex’ which looked at the relations between breeding, eugenics and class – Wallinger called horse breeding ‘ eugenics by proxy’
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He also made a black and white replica of Stubbs’ famous 18th century race horse painting Whistlejacket, often hailed as an icon Englishness, added a unicorn horn and called it Ghost – the spectral fantasy of English ‘identity’.

Later he bought an actual race horse which he called ‘A Real Work of Art’ and ran it in suffragette racing colours (purple, green and white) while dressing himself up in the colours as Emily Davison, the suffragette who through herself under the King’s horse in the 1913 Derby. At the same time as commenting on class and gender this work was an exploration, as its name implies, of the issue of realism in art and the perennial ‘what is art?’ question.

Marcel Duchamp, with his ready mades, floated the idea that a work of art was simply what an artist designated as such, and the philosopher of art, Arthur Danto, responding to Warhol’s Brillo Pads, developed the idea that art is what the institutions of the art world (galleries, critics, art colleges etc) say it is. Wallinger regarded the latter as a ‘patently conservative position’ (both are philosophically idealist positions) and set out to challenge it by nominating as art something from life outside the gallery or art world. Clearly there is also an element of playfulness here – imagine the race commentator intoning “ it’s A Real Work of Art coming up on the rails … and the winner is … A Real Work of Art!”

A neglected aspect of realism and naturalism in artistic representation is the question of scale. How can we regard as ‘realist’ an image which is a completely different size? Wallinger investigated this in reverse in Ecce Homo, an exactly life-size representation of a man as a Christ figure, placed on the vacant Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. Because all the other figures on plinths in the Square are much larger than life size, Wallinger’s figure looked uncannily small. The Ebbsfleet horse reverses the issue again by trying to be ‘uncannily realistic’ (Wallinger’s words) on a gigantic scale which somehow manages to recall a tiny model in a child’s farmyard set.

None of this tells us how The White Horse will actually turn out but it does suggest it will be one of the more interesting pieces of public art of recent times.


John Molyneux
15 February 2009

4 comments:

Eugene Hirschfeld said...

That Wallinger could win the Turner Prize and a major commission for Ebbsfleet speaks not only about the public but about the politics of a section of the British art establishment.

The British Museum's exhibitions on Babylon and Iran, for example, aren't just about art, they are progressive political interventions (whatever else one might feel about such institutions).

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