Mark Wallinger is one of the elders of the YBA (Young British Artist) group and considered by some to be the most intellectual; James Joyce’s Ulysses was the subject of his BA dissertation at Chelsea College of Art – he went on to Goldsmiths, where he later taught Damien Hirst and Gary Hume. Wallinger came to prominence in the 2000s with his photographic reinterpretation of Stubbs’ Whistlejacket, called Ghost (2001) and with his plan for an enormous sculpture of a white stallion in Ebbsfleet, Kent – which sadly is still pending due to lack of funding. Horses and their classification are a cipher, Wallinger argued, for Britons’ obsession with race, class and gender.
His new exhibition at Hauser & Wirth gallery in London, from February 26 to May 7, delves deeper and is inspired by Freud’s delineation of the id, ego and superego. It features giant abstract monochrome paintings (each costing £165,000, example pictured) that examine, says the gallery’s blurb, “how, as human beings, we operate between our instinctual urges, our attachment to our identities, and the ways in which we judge ourselves as members of a certain culture”.
Wallinger himself says: “The id is driven by the pleasure principle, which strives for immediate gratification of all desires, wants and needs. If these needs are not satisfied immediately, the result is a state of anxiety or tension.”
Globules of paint smeared by hand create pictures reminiscent of Yves Klein’s body paintings or Japanese ink drawings. In the same way that Leonardo da Vinci instructed any artist lacking in inspiration to stare at a wall or a pebble until his imagination was fired by the scratches or striations, so Wallinger leaves it to the viewer to decide what it is he has painted – moss, rabbits, X-rays, vaginas? The answer is all or none, depending on who is looking at them.
Also on display is Superego, a mirrored version of the revolving Scotland Yard sign. “The superego acts to perfect and civilise our behaviour,” explains Wallinger. “It works to suppress all unacceptable urges of the id and struggles to make the ego act upon idealistic standards rather than upon realistic principles. The revolving New Scotland Yard sign is a brand, a logo, the seat of authority, the all-seeing eye, omnipresent and omniscient.”
Two films continue the theme of surveillance. One, Orrery, features an oak tree on a roundabout during different seasons. “The oak tree on its island is a cameo of Britain,” says Wallinger. The second film is of a barber’s shop where the only moving item is the stripy pole outside, whose movement gives an impression of “endlessness” – not unlike the ruminations of this philosopher artist.