De Pont in Tilburg might just be one of Holland’s finest museums for contemporary art. The beautiful former wool factory houses a world-class collection of artworks, focusing mainly on poetic and formal art with highlights by artists like Anish Kapoor, Bill Viola, James Turell and painters like Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Bernard Frize and Katharina Grosse. The museum doesn’t typically appear to be very interested in politics, but all of a sudden it presents an exhibition by Mark Wallinger, an artist with a taste for the political who you would be more likely expect in a space like the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. The well-known British artist works in a wide array of media, his work confronting political, social and religious themes with a great love of language.
Wallinger’s unavoidable Turner prize winning State Britain (2007) is the centrepiece of the Tilburg exhibition. The work is an exact copy of a protest wall constructed in front of the Parliament Square in London by peace activist Brian Haw. Haw spent five years protesting day and night against the war in Iraq, his campsite developing into a forty-three meter wide construction of banners, signs, graphic photos, flags, and toys stained with red paint. One day the state decided they didn’t want to look at Haw any longer and on the 23rd of May, 2006, a force seventy-eight-policemen strong swept the fixture from the streets. Wallinger had visited the site a few days earlier and documented the entire thing. With exacting detail the artist and his assistants reproduced the wall - even Haw’s adjacent sleeping section was reproduced - and provocatively installed the replica in Tate Britain for the Turner Prize exhibition. In Tilburg, the work’s political nature is still prominent but the displacement from its original site in London removes much of the political strength and the activist intentions Wallinger might have had. Instead, in De Pont it is the work’s formal and conceptual aspects that are foregrounded. Even under these circumstances State Britain remains strong enough, raising questions about aesthetics (Hirschhorn anyone?), authorship, and political activism in an art context. Another work with a political dimension is Passport Control (1988), a series of passport type photos showing the young Wallinger with moustaches, beards and turbans drawn onto them in black marker to create ethnic stereotypes. Apart from the identity issues it challenges, some British humour clearly also travelled to Holland.
A large part of the exhibition consists of works showcasing Wallinger’s interest in language. This fascination leads to works that are sometimes rich in associative content and sometimes don’t go far beyond basic wordplay. An example of a piece that does work is Mark (2010). The artist played on the double meaning of his own name, tagging/marking his first name on walls throughout the city in a graffiti-styled manner. This work transcends mere wordplay, touching on issues like public space and youth culture, transforming the traditional mark a painter makes on a canvas into a banal gesture on a wall. Wallinger employs similar wordplay in a series of works titled Self Portrait, built out of a collection of canvases showing the letter I in different fonts. This time the tactic doesn’t have the same depth to it. Conceptually it’s not that rich and visually the works aren’t very appealing either. This concept works better in Self (Times New Roman) (2010) which is a sculpture of the Times New Roman letter I in 3-D. It has the same concept as the paintings, but the fact that it is a minimalist sculpture appearing the same from every angle makes it conceptually more layered than the paintings.
The same type of Wallingeresque wordplay is present in the work I am Innocent (2010). It consists of a double sided reproduction of Velazquez’ portrait of Pope Innocent X (one of them is mirrored) spinning like a disco ball. The accompanying text connects the work to the recent loss of innocence by the Catholic church, but the absurdness of this rotating masterpiece brings out more of Wallinger’s funny side then his critical side. From the religious we move to the mythical. Landscape with The Fall of Icarus (2007), a five-channel video installation showing home videos of people falling in slow motion, is one of the weakest works in the exhibition. Wallinger’s title throws in the Icarus myth and the history of landscape painting to give some intellectual content to the work, but the whole thing just seems a forced attempt to create meaning and depth where there is none.
The works in the exhibition tread the fine line between being clever and trying too hard, but the fact that Wallinger presents both types of artwork does create a certain lightness. Most of the time Wallinger manages to lift the banal to the exceptional, and his good sense of humor makes his serious themes more digestible. The best works in the exhibition have a certain lightness and casualness to them, but at the same time they have enough depth to make them appealing and conceptually rich. The result is a playful show which has found a good host in De Pont.
~Manus Groenen, a writer living in Amsterdam.
(Images: Mark Wallinger, Courtesy De Pont)