Published  18/03/2016

Mark Wallinger: ‘Even the ugliest mark, with symmetry, gains some kind of élan’

Mark Wallinger: ‘Even the ugliest mark, with symmetry, gains some kind of élan’

After months of psychoanalysis, the Turner Prize-winning artist reveals something of his inner self in his debut solo show at Hauser & Wirth. The id, the ego and the superego are all vying for attention and begging interpretation


The walls of Hauser & Wirth’s North Gallery are hung with huge canvases, dominated by looming black shapes, smeared on, with vast hand gestures, mirroring themselves and each other, demanding interpretation in the same way as a Rorschach test. The paintings – Vitruvian in measure, at twice a man’s height tall and an arm-span wide – are from a series of id Paintings by the Turner Prize-winning artist, Mark Wallinger (b1959). They form part of his new exhibition, ID, his debut solo show at the gallery, focusing on Freud’s interrogation of the psyche, the self and the subject. Easy to miss, beside these towering inky smears, is a much smaller work, Ego (2016), comprising two iPhone photographs of Wallinger’s hands, posing as a playful recreation of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam.

Next door, in the South Gallery, Wallinger has installed a life-size, mirrored, revolving replica of the New Scotland Yard sign, here signifying the superego, with its all-seeing, controlling eye – a nod to some of his more political works of the past. The back rooms house the smaller video pieces: Orrery (2016), Shadow Walker (2011) and Ever Since (2012), each one taking the viewer on a journey, much as they did Wallinger during the creative process.

After giving a guided tour of the exhibition, Wallinger spoke to Studio International about his own journey and the – sometimes subconscious – messages and significations implied.

Anna McNay: How relevant do you feel Freud and his theories are to contemporary artists – and indeed the wider public – today?

Mark Wallinger: Whether or not one sees the notion of the id, the ego and the superego as a credible, workable theory of the mind, it’s still something that everyone knows and can see themselves reflected in. Everyone has a common knowledge of what the id, the ego and the superego are. I’ve been in analysis now for a year and a half. That’s certainly not unrelated to my work.

AMc: Do you think these works have grown out of that, then?

MW: Yes, I suppose I’ve been, quite literally, facing up to myself.

AMc: What layer of your psyche do you think is generally most involved when you are making your artworks: the id, the ego or the superego?

MW: Most of it, if the work is any good, I would hope. The id Paintings were great because they were really about being in the moment, which is quite a hard thing to be. It was brilliant to get back into the way of painting again, so it was a very liberating and exciting period. Then the roundabout piece, Orrery [a film made on an iPhone of an oak tree in the centre of a traffic island], is some kind of a recognition. I was besotted with that image and that drove me on. I spent two years going back and forth to that roundabout, so that brought out the stubborn part of me, to try to get it done properly. But, at the same time, over the years, I have learned to be patient and hold on to half an idea, hoping that the other half might come and meet it at some point. I hope both of these aspects come out in the show. There is this moment of recognition – a bit like an epiphany, if you like – when a number of things come together and suddenly manifest and that is very exciting.

AMc: Looking at the id Paintings, do you see the same thing each time you come back to them?

MW: No, it’s been really quite a strange experience for me. I’ve learned to live with these paintings all around me in my studio and they’re a bit like old friends, but I’m starting to see different things in all of them in this gallery. They seem to be changing all the time.

AMc: As you were doing them, were you trying to make them look like anything specific, or was it totally a matter for the subconscious? 

MW: Obviously, things start taking on semblances, or appearances, but, as far as possible, I didn’t want to get led down any particular road. They couldn’t ever feel like they were getting too descriptive – that didn’t feel right to me in making them. If something started looking too much like something, I’d be inclined to mess it up. I think Keats used the term “negative capability” – living in that uncertain moment, trying to hold on to the ambiguous and not rushing to resolution – and that was the important part of being in that moment for me. In the end, they’re very much records of events. Time is very much encoded in this work. The final image is just a point of arrest, in a way.

AMc: Presumably, it was quite revelatory for you when things did start appearing, unconsciously or subconsciously? 

MW: Yes, and even more so when I look at them now, to be honest, because each painting was a very particular relationship, in a way. I suppose, in the back of my mind, I knew they would talk to each other in a certain kind of way, but I didn’t realise quite how until I saw them on the walls here. That’s another part of the process, really.

AMc: How long did each one typically take to make? 

MW: It really varied, but getting on for a day would have been the longest. I never allowed it to go over into a second day, in any case, and it was important that the paint was all still wet. I didn’t allow myself to paint wet over dry, and acrylic paint is very rapidly drying. So that lent its own urgency to the task. Generally speaking, it probably took me about three hours or so per painting. I’d start on the bottom of the canvas and then flip it up the other way. I set in train a process that just carried me forward without me having to think too much or too rationally. I learned to stop before I started to tidy up. But this is what I was doing pretty much every day for four or five months. It was fairly constant. Quite often, I was working until midnight. I’d have to psyche myself up before beginning though. In a weird way, it was quite reckless. It was quite addictive as a process, and enjoyable to be so absolutely absorbed in something.

AMc: Why the black?

MW: It grew out of the self-portrait series of I paintings I’d been working on since 2007, on and off. I wanted to see where I could send this series if I scaled it up to a very large scale, so I ordered these canvases to be made to my proportions. I’d just moved into this new, very tall, factory-space studio and it all happened rather organically. I made a number of paintings in a variety of styles and then, in the last two or three, I started using my hands a little bit. Then the penny dropped and I started to use both hands simultaneously, in an instinctive, intuitive kind of way. I was really excited by what was happening. I realised we’re hard-wired for symmetry. We’re not as right- or left-handed as we think. Any mark, given its mirror, gains some kind of authority – it’s given its affirmation. So I embarked on this series of works and they were done in pretty much a creative frenzy from 11 August 2015 onwards. They were a bit diaristic. I took pictures on my iPhone each time I completed one. I can pretty much remember which day of the week each one was made on. Obviously, there’s a reference in them to the Rorschach test. They’re, as you say, very black and quite inky. I’d been working with this particular ivory black acrylic for a long time. It doesn’t go blue or brown. It’s very pure. There just didn’t seem to be any necessity for colour at all, really.

AMc: Since you mention self-portraiture, I’m interested in your choice to use photographs of your hands to represent yourself – the artist – in Ego. Artists throughout time have used hands as self-portraits, but I was wondering whether this was still the most appropriate signifier in today’s world, where so much art is more conceptually based. Maybe the eye or the mind would be more representative of the contemporary artist?

MW: Yes, I see what you’re saying. I guess it was interesting how the two bits of A4 printout that have been on my kitchen wall for 18 months suddenly seemed so important when I began using my hands for the id Paintings. I thought: “Oh right, these are the tools of my trade now”, and so it was quite nice to go for something that explicitly referenced one of the best known images in western art and yet was very much the creation of what the iPhone makes possible – living in a very contemporary time, thinking: “Oh look, I can snap that with my iPhone and print it out immediately” – and there we are. It’s kind of hubristic and comical at the same time.

AMc: Do you think the invention of all these new media is a good thing for artists?

MW: Yes. I think we’re incredibly sophisticated at reading the texture of things, in particular the moving image and qualities of video versus film and all the rest of it, and we know how good the iPhone camera is, but it still feels like something quite personal.

AMc: This whole show is very personal, isn’t it? Usually your work is a bit more of a social or political comment, but this is very self-referential.

MW: Yes, I suppose, looking back, I’ve always come back to the self, but I’ve come at it from many different angles and I guess and this one seems to be addressing it a bit more directly. Just through life changes and whatever’s going on, addressing myself seemed a bit more urgent or pertinent or necessary.

AMc: Shadow Walker (2011) captures your shadow as it walks along Shaftesbury Avenue. It has been described as a “modern-day version of Peter Pan’s lost shadow”. Do you think there is a Peter Pan element inherent in every artist’s nature? That inner child that remains? The unrestrained id, maybe?

MW: I think there is some sense of curiosity, or wonder even, that one perhaps enjoys, in looking at art or trying to make art – it is like trying to be both naive and sophisticated at the same time, really. I made this work on a sunny weekend in October. I came out of my house in Soho and the sun was shining directly down on the street and everyone’s shadows were really sharp. I’d just recently bought a camera that took moving images and so I started playing with that and I found a way in which I could have the camera slung around my neck and, with a couple of bits of string, like a bit gritted through my teeth, I could keep the camera still enough and not evident. I’ve made a couple of works, which describe the rich decoration of Soho pavements. I was thinking about the notion of the flâneur and also about the particularly rich history that shadows enjoy in London. Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes … One thinks of shadows down dark streets. I was also interested in the fact that we tend to think of shadows as secondary phenomena, when, really, they are as basic as gravity or anything else. They’re quite sinister, in a way, because there’s no escaping from them.

Essentially, it comes down to looking at something, and that’s both about recognition, which is obviously to do with everything you’ve known up until that point, but also seeing something new, which is a bit like starting out again or having an innocent eye. It’s quite paradoxical. I got interested in the etymology of certain words while putting the show together and “to apprehend” or “apprehension” was something that seemed to be particularly pertinent, especially to the works in the South Gallery, which are all to do with noticing we’re comprehending but also fearing – so apprehending like a criminal, if you like. 

AMc: You haven’t used any text in the works for this exhibition, which is something you quite often do.

MW: Yes, but I’m quite pleased about not using it this time. I didn’t feel it was necessary.

AMc: Where does the meaning come from in your work? It was interesting listening to some of the different responses people had to the id Paintings. For example, one person thought they were quite dark and sinister. Do you think there is a meaning there that comes from you, the artist, or does each viewer bring his or her own interpretation?

MW: I’d hope that it was a bit of a meeting of both. Obviously, the Rorschach test is implicitly there somewhere and that’s about some kind of analysis of what the viewer sees, but I made those things, so there is obviously some kind of intention as well. I quite like the fact that they might exist somewhere between seeing oneself in them and trying to unearth the artist’s intentions. I think some of them are quite joyous, and even the ugliest mark, with symmetry, gains some kind of élan.

AMc: You were quite specific about which way up the id Paintings should be hung.

MW: Yes, I think it’s because, for me, they describe a bit of a journey. I painted the first half one way up and then flipped them up the other way, so there is some kind of a dialogue between the two halves. It’s all about making decisions that take away too many other decisions.

AMc: So even though it’s the id, which is supposedly the uncontrolled part of the psyche, making the paintings, you still can’t totally switch off that superego decision-making part?

MW: Except for when I was actually making them. The speed at which they were made, they remained something really quite fresh and new and maybe a little strange. Then, when you flip them upside down, they become estranged again. But it invites some kind of response. It’s about creating a situation where one is just responding as instinctively as possible.

AMc: You speak of a journey, and the id Paintings are indeed hung chronologically. Is it important for you that they are kept in this order?

MW: It seems the right way to do it, yes, because it is a bit of a journey and, in as far as they are rather personal and about where I was mentally during all those months, that seemed about the only ordering principle I could give to them. As a process, it was both purposeful and without aim, so it was quite a curious wave to ride.

AMc: On your Wikipedia entry, under “personal life”, all it says is: “Wallinger is a supporter of the Labour party.” How key is politics to your work?

MW: I don’t quite know why that’s there really. I suppose it’s because I gave a work to an auction a while back. Yes, politics is important to me.

AMc: You gave a work to auction to raise money for the Labour party, for its campaign?

MW: Yes. It wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone to learn that I’m on the left of politics, I don’t think.

AMc: But you don’t specifically put that into your work?

MW: No.

AMc: Apart, of course, from State Britain (2007), your recreation for the Duveen Galleries in Tate Britain, of peace campaigner Brian Haw’s Parliament Square protest, which is surely fairly political?

MW: Yes, sure. And, in this exhibition, the superego piece also says something about our relationship to the state and how we see ourselves as part of a larger society, I suppose. I wanted to say somehow about how power manifests itself in symbols in the world and also how it acts on us internally as our own conscience or consciousness. I like the fact that it’s just above head height. We’re denied our own reflections, apart from underneath. It’s inaccessible in a way. One point of inspiration to make this work was the fact that the gallery is just opposite West End Central police station, where I fetched up in the 80s after I’d been beaten up by some British National party members for working in a bookshop that had a gay section. I had the culprits paraded in front of me, but I’d had my glasses smashed, so I knew it wouldn’t stand up in court. I was shoved out of the door and I remember getting to Regent Street and not knowing which end was which. The proximity of that perhaps had some bearing on the gestation of this. It’s our policeman, our superego. We’ve got more CCTV cameras in this country [per head of population] than anywhere else, and it struck me that policing now is just about evidence. As long as something is caught on camera, it’s fine. But we don’t see ourselves in that process.

AMc: Finally, you’ve won the Turner Prize (2007), represented Britain in Venice (2001), and had a work on the Fourth Plinth (1999). What is there left for you to achieve?

MW: Well, in a sense, it’s quite nice that there’s nothing else on the horizon. Do you know what I mean? Just getting on with the work really, that’s the best thing.

• Mark Wallinger: ID is at Hauser & Wirth, London, until 7 May 2016

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

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