Me, Myself and I: Mark Wallinger and Identity in Art

Mark Wallinger is having a moment in Scotland, with exhibitions displaying  his work in Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery, Ingleby Gallery and Dundee Contemporary Arts. His work focuses on identity and the individual, often in a political or religious context.

The MARK WALLINGER MARK exhibition at The Fruitmarket Gallery demonstrates the vast spectrum of media employed by the artist from 2003 to the present, comprising painting, photography, film, installation, performance art, and poetry. What is so captivating about this work is Wallinger’s exploration of identity in different contexts without the use of figures. Symbols and signs are instead employed to examine the notion of the individual. In the first room the viewer is confronted by a series of Wallinger’s ‘Self Portrait’ paintings that emphasise this approach. Despite the title, each painting contains only the letter ‘I’ rather than a traditional figurative representation of the artist.

In the same room, ‘According to Mark’ and ‘I am Innocent’ explore this concept further, though with an added religious dimension. ‘According to Mark’ is a particular highlight, consisting of 100 different chairs labelled ‘Mark’ with thread leading from each to a focus point at the front. It suggests a gathering of people to hear someone speak. Whether the threads emanate out from the frontal point to the chairs or vice versa, this creates a sense of ambiguity as to the nature of the meeting. Indoctrination and the nature of group identity are both alluded to. The title of the work imparts a religious element; perhaps the crowd has congregated to hear from the Gospel of Mark? A vanishing point is created by the thread, which Wallinger has described as perhaps also referring to the point of creation.

Upstairs in the gallery are the newest works in the exhibition, ‘id Paintings’, which centre on a more psychological representation of the self. These immense canvases are hand-painted in the style of psychoanalytical inkblot tests. There is a sense of performance in the way Wallinger has painted these works. Energetic strokes of paint, full of impulse, cover the canvases. The artist, having used both hands simultaneously, has created the symmetry of the pieces manually. The viewer is encouraged to find images within these spontaneous markings, revealing their own desires.

Symmetry, as well as sense of identity, is also explored by Wallinger through the written word. Wallinger’s poem entitled ‘Adam’ is formed from all the first lines beginning with ‘I’ from Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, placed in alphabetical order. The title is a pun, as ‘I’ is the first person. Other works on this floor include ‘Ego’ and ‘Sleeper’, works which are using ever more diverse media to explore the self.

Wallinger’s ‘The End’, part of Ingleby Gallery’s and per se and part I exhibition, continues this theme of the ordered word. The 11 minute 40 second film presents a series of end credits consisting of the names of everyone in the Old Testament in order of appearance. The piece goes by surprisingly quickly. The soundtrack to the credits is Johann Strauss II’s ‘The Blue Danube’ waltz which is very well suited to the visuals, ending with a dramatic climax of the last name: Jesus. The symmetry of the white names on a black background resemble Wallinger’s ‘id Paintings’. Its title, ‘The End’, references its format and also creates juxtaposition with its subject being the beginning of the Christian world. The allusion to performance, through displaying the list of biblical characters in the format of film credits,  potentially suggests a comment on the fictitious nature of religion. Whether Wallinger’s intention was deeply serious, questioning or humorous, it is a very successful piece.

The Fruitmarket Gallery and Ingleby Gallery expertly display Wallinger’s extensive range of media through a relatively small number of works. The chosen pieces depict his impressive use of illusion, wordplay and humour to explore deeper political, religious and social concerns. It is entertaining, thought-provoking and most definitely worth a visit.

‘The End’
Ingleby Gallery
11am-4pm, Wednesday to Saturday until 1 April 2017.

MARK WALLINGER MARK
Fruitmarket Gallery
Ends 4 June.

Photo credit: Immie Rosie-Wilkinson

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