It is all about Mark Wallinger in his retrospective at De Pont in Tilburg.
The first time I saw a Mark Wallinger show it was in Milan, at Hanger Bicocca, a huge postindustrial site that also hosts Anselm Kiefer's Seven Heavenly Palaces. In such a vast and dimly lit setting, most of the works by the (later) Turner Prize-awarded Englishman had an iconic, almost religious quality to them. It was with that visit still on my mind that I walked into the De Pont Museum, but the experience was definitely different.
Made exception for State Britain (2006), the piece that earned the artist his Turner Prize, from its very title Mark comes across as a quite relaxed and playful retrospective. Wallinger's name and persona are a recurring leitmotiv throughout the show, popping out in his Passport Control photos (1988), his Self Portrait series (2010) – several paintings, and even a sculpture, reproducing the letter 'I' in different fonts – and in the Mark slideshow (2010). If these pieces feel like lightweight conceptual ideas turned into easily serialized work, According to Mark (2010) reveals all the metaphysical potential of such introspection. A room full of chairs - in different sizes and colors, but all carrying the artist's first name written on the back with a black marker – is cut by a multitude of white strings, linking each piece of furniture to a single spot on the opposing wall. This focal point, radiating a fragile yet material connection to every object in sight, effectively stages the projection of one's identity onto the world. As conceptual as the aforementioned pieces, According to Mark is one of the unquestioned highs within the show, in terms of aesthetic value.
Despite the overall personal character of the exhibition, State Britain – with its overtly political implications – remains its pivotal piece. The installation consists in an extremely faithful reconstruction of the anti-war protest wall that English activist Brian William Haw set up in London's Parliament Square, where he camped from 2001 to mid-2006. Six months after Haw's site – consisting in a collection of banners, signs, slogans, shocking photos, and camping equipment – was dismantled by the police, Wallinger re-proposed it in a show at Tate Britain's Duveen Gallery.
Apart from its content, which definitely stands out, the protest wall occupies the largest area within the De Pont layout. While other works by the artist are mingling with the Polkes, the Kapoors and the Turrells - part of the museum's collection - State Britain demands all of the visitor's attention.
Between the personal and the political, the show also exemplifies Wallinger's own brand of conceptualism through other intriguing works: The Unconscious I-V (2007) (a collection of photos from the Internet, all depicting people asleep on public transportation), I am Innocent (2010) (a double sided reproduction of the famous papal portrait by Velasquez, hanging from the ceiling in perpetual rotation) and Construction Site (2011) (a one-hour long video of workers building an architectural structure on a beach).
Overall, Mark is a rich retrospective. The exhibition features some really powerful works, but also a few missed opportunities. Mixing some of Wallinger's pieces with the museum's permanent collection is a curatorial choice that, in my opinion, doesn't help the weaker works to at least band up with the rest of the artist's corpus. The stronger ones do impress, though, and – if this weren't enough - the De Pont collection alone is worth a visit.
8 October 2011 - 19 February 2012
Museum De Pont, Tilburg