Mark Wallinger: ID

Hauser and Wirth, London

At the core of ID is the question of identity, and the ways in which an individual, a subject, a person constitutes their self. But this centre is rapidly revealed as something decentred, hard to grasp, multiplyconstituted and maybe under threat. Identity is shown as something to be played with, teased and teased out, stretched, framed, set free. This is a self that has the capacity for unbounded expression, as well as being the thing that is subject to control. Wallinger’s show, spread across the two galleries of Hauser and Wirth’s London spaces, oscillates between individual and society, the individual in general, and the person in particular, in the shape of Wallinger’s own presence.

Mark Wallinger: id Painting 7 (2015). Acrylic on canvas. 360 x 180 cm. Photo: Alex Delfanne
Mark Wallinger: id Painting 7 (2015). Acrylic on canvas. 360 x 180 cm. Photo: Alex Delfanne

For all the musing on social construction, Wallinger never loses sight of individual perspective: everyone, every one person, gets to be individually located. In other words, Wallinger remembers that any abstract ‘subject’ is one specific individual, and so he addresses these questions from a consciously displayed selfpresence. Wallinger has always put himself inside his work, the artist occupying the work directly, explicitly. From his early breakthrough in the mid-1990s through works such as State Britain (2007, a reconstruction of anti-war protestor Brian Haw’s poster/banner protest outside Britain’s Houses of Parliament), he has filtered his own social obsessions through a resolutely critical political position and engagement. Moving away from his references to classical and religious work (as seen, for example, in Ecce Homo, 1999, a meek-looking Christ sculpture on the empty plinth of Trafalgar Square), this current show ranges over many media and multiple types of visual content and ideas. Underpinning the whole is an exploration of the location of the contemporary subject. Often, such big statements work as a glaze through which we peer at otherwise unconnected objects, but here the idea is a gel, an interstitial device that is actually effective, and encourages further reflection on the way the works function. At the centre, then, is the virtual impossibility of there being a centre to the self, except perhaps when constituted through surveillance. Instead, the self is shown, or more accurately, worked through, as a construction of Sigmund Freud’s interlocked zones of Ego, Id and Superego. Three works express these modes of being or stimulus processing, and three others extend out into other ways of conceiving self as something other than centred, known, stable or whole.

Freud had explored the possibility of mental realms beyond conscious control by the end of the 19th century. The psychological model Wallinger refers to dates from 1920, and breaks the psyche into three parts: the Ego – location of the conscious self; the Id, site of desires and impulses; and the Superego, a controlling region developed through social training to restrain the Id. All three interact continually, and the process of interaction is itself explicitly beyond the reach of the conscious part of a person’s thought. What we are able to do is look at the functioning of the system, or let others explore it. So, as well as the decentring that comes from the presence of the lurking Id, there is the further loss of control that comes from the fact that we require the observations and interpretations of an outsider, an other, in order to have any chance of seeing what is going on inside. The consequences of Freud’s system are joined in ID by other moments where the human has been displaced from the centre: Copernicus’ removal of the earth from the centre of the universe (referred to in this show in Orrery [2016]); Marx’s revelation that the world of liberal politics is an ideological cover for exploitation (underpinning all the works, but almost explicit in Superego [2016]); the processes of ecological change (Orrery again). The show bifurcates from the outset: divided over the two Hauser and Wirth sites, the exhibition text invites us to begin with the upper of two locations (the North gallery) and the piece Ego (2016). This consists of two iPhone pictures showing Wallinger’s hands echoing the digital pose of God and Adam in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel. This ostensibly cheap copy illustrates the vanity of The Artist as a creative force, and shows how work is always coming into being, the artist never complete. This seemingly empty playfulness is more interesting in the context of the series of works on show here: for a start, the splitting of the work across two sites is a mapping of conscious and unconscious, social and individual. Ego, whilst referring explicitly to the tip of the Freudian iceberg of personality, also divides in two, as Wallinger’s hands take the place of both creator and created – which in turn plays out in him being both artist and subject, and visually in the form of the two separate prints. The iPhone is not an innocent tool either, and rather than a fatuous statement about contemporary creativity, this piece acts as a musing on the manual interaction with the visual that has occurred with the arrival of this cameraphone. The artistic medium of the extended hand has been replaced by the crabbed thumbing of pads. The way in which the self uses the hand as an artistic prosthesis has been altered by far more than the simple fact of a computer assisting in image production.

From here, the unconscious takes over in the form of a large space completely dominated by massive primal paintings, all the canvases the width of Wallinger’s body and double the height. Every Id painting offers another fission: the paint is daubed by hand on half, then doubled onto the other to make a near-symmetrical Rorschach blot. Each piece not only opens up the canvas to the free roaming of the normally contained Id, but also represents one of the modes of psychological testing – such that the viewer’s perception of what is depicted reveals something of their internal workings. I liked the bombast of the pictures but, to be honest, something that is fun to do or interesting as a way of looking into your otherwise inaccessible depths is not necessarily of much value to any other viewer. So if you’re Rorschach-testing me on this, I saw only the form, and the form was a shallow scraping into maudlin expressionism, an emptying of psychic energy – as opposed, say, to the drive of Jonathan Meese’s retro-neo-goth paint lashings. So, oddly, the least interesting part of Wallinger’s exploration of the decentred subject is the unconscious.

The South building offers much richer probings into the confluence of self and social, the self and its imposed location in webs of power, in the conventions of the physical world. The back room pairs spatial and temporal aspects in the shape of Ever Since (2012) and Shadow Walker (2011). Both combine a sense of individual perception and self-locating presence with representations of the urban environment. Ever Since is a life-size projection of a barber shop front. The only immediately perceptible sign of movement is in the red and white stripe of the traditional marker of the trade, rotating in the upper right quadrant. A clock also moves, but only for two seconds, as this is the duration of the video loop. The barber sign, however, offers the illusion of perpetual motion – time unbroken. More than a perceptual trick, this piece stages repetition as exception, as meditation on what a moment means, trading, perhaps unconsciously, on Nietzsche and Deleuze. Here we are, with Richard Butler, ‘Forever Now’, but in a now that is always in motion, slipping away while static. The spatial-visual presentation marks another repetition of the same (as simulacrum of real object), but transferred to this new location. The uncanny of the shop front is wittingly conjured in Shadow Walker, a three-minute loop of Wallinger walking and filming his shadow moving through the popular thoroughfare of London’s Shaftesbury Avenue. This uncanny figure moves and negotiates space differently to the physical (filming) Wallinger, leading the way through a different spatial configuration, present and separate. It’s a shadow. It’s both fascinating and dull. But if we think of an urban uncanny, we can connect it to something more interesting in Wallinger’s work. Without directly documenting any change in the location, Wallinger shows us a changing relation to that environment – he ghosts through the familiar place at a distance, mediating through lens and shadow, rendering the place formal and spectral in one go. Wallinger’s personal and political interaction with English culture traverses a London that generates psychogeographical movement. What was once an enticing exploration of ‘other’ Londons is now the condition in which everyone lives – or doesn’t live – as the city is emptied out in favour of high wealth groups in receipt of massive State benefit in the form of tax breaks and urban clearance measures. This slight video work is able to extract us from militant melancholy and offer a small reflection on conflicted urban dwelling, a theme pursued more vigorously in the four screens of Orrery.

Mark Wallinger: Superego (2016). Detail. Stainless steel, glass mirror, motor. 350 x 160 x 160 cm. Photo: Alex Delfanne
Mark Wallinger: Superego (2016). Detail. Stainless steel, glass mirror, motor. 350 x 160 x 160 cm. Photo: Alex Delfanne

The planetarium (later ‘orrery’) was a mechanical device that illustrated the movements of planets around the Sun, celebrating the recalibration of the universe in light of Copernicus’ re-centring of the solar system on the Sun, thus deprivileging Man as the centre of all things, and, by implication, God and Heaven too. Instead, space was full of bodies moving in relation to one another. Wallinger uses the idea of the orrery as the organising model for his filming of an oak tree on a roundabout in Barkingside (which was in Essex for the first few years of Wallinger’s life, then in the London borough of Redbridge). There are four screens, each dedicated to capturing the roundabout and attendant tree in a particular season. The screens are placed in formation such that the viewer is centred between them all. On the face of it, then, this is about the seasons, about the passing of the Earth around the Sun, and how this is captured in the medium of the tree. The tree becomes medium for the imprint of both passing time, form, light and colour, and so a further dimension for the work’s reflection on centring, as the medium shifts between the blatant format of digital video, the explicit ordering as installation and the recursively included medium of the tree as intermediary. But Wallinger also emphasizes the perpetual movement of gravity and rotation through the almost parodic figure of the urban roundabout. In so doing, he re-centres the heliocentric model onto a city-dwelling individual, and onto himself in particular, as the gallery text mentions that this roundabout featured in Wallinger’s early car driving experiences. The double centring ends up as a de-centring though, due to the overall structure of the work as presented here. The roundabout acts precisely as a gravitational pull on traffic, and so cars rotate around the ever-changing tree. The four screens do not so much convey the sense of being in a car in the roundabout-centric model as create a vivid and physical sense of disorientation, the viewer being both located in the centre, and looking on ‘the centre’ from a gyratory perspective. We now have a model that establishes the tree, the roundabout, the Sun, as centres, and yet we are transferred onto a centre that is not there – and so the orrery is updated from an early 18th century machine into a replica of internal psychological division, process and relation.

Where the orrery of Barkingside illustrates a triumph of secular rationalism over religious rejection and persecution of heresy, Superego represents a return of the repressor. Where the tree that grows its roots into the centre of traffic was planted as an avatar of future utopian dreams, marking the 1951 Festival of Britain, the revolving sign of Superego takes as its totem the symbol of new policing, a darker imagined future. The work consists of a working replica of the sign that marks New Scotland Yard, the centre of the activities of the Metropolitan Police, completed in 1967. A triangular prism, marked ‘New Scotland Yard’ swivels atop a metal pole, its tireless movement a simulation of permanent vigilance. Here in Superego the words ‘New Scotland Yard’ are removed and replaced by mirrored surfaces.

For Freud, the superego is the internalised set of rules and restrictions that settle into the mind as a result of familial upbringing. Wallinger extends this, as Freud did to some extent, and Lacan after him, into the idea that the individual is made to internalise discipline imposed at the social level. ‘New Scotland Yard’ consists of a display of power that is iconic rather than indexical, and Wallinger seeks to restore a sense of how power happens through signs and how we receive and act on them. So the superego of Superego is a transfer of rigorous social policing into an internal code that we forget has been imposed. The mirrored planes mean that we now discipline ourselves. This is one lesson that Wallinger has taken from Michel Foucault’s account of Western society as a giant prison. Wallinger’s critical hope perhaps interferes with the darker implications of that thought, which is that we are our own police, as power is a set of processes and relations which we are not underneath but caught within. We police ourselves because we have taught ourselves to do it. It is important for both parts of Foucault’s idea to subsist: firstly, social control, secondly, self-discipline as structuring device of subjectivity. Once we realise that power works through, not behind, mirrors, there is no way out.

The installation is impressive and fully conveys the threatening presence of the police sign: alone in the large gallery, its rotation provides a continual sonic backdrop, the meticulous grind of bureaucratic power a reassuring presence for some, but here its isolation shows the muscle that flexes and ripples underneath the expression of power. Britain is not only heavily policed by an official police force and army, but also by millions of CCTV cameras, with the result that this is a society that is ultimately so obsessed with its own punishment it may not need the official force any more. In fact, security seems only ever to increase, rather than change form: as informatic society revels in its self-surveillance, private companies join the official police in expanding their realm of operation.

Once again, the use of a specific location does not result in an abstraction but a deepening of location, and, in this show, a heightening of decentring, of the defamiliarising effects at work in the internal processes of any individual. Standing in as that ‘any’ individual (which Giorgio Agamben calls ‘whatever’ being), Wallinger is resolutely in, not outside of, a personal history, and this is one that is tied up in London and its signifying avatars. The ‘New Scotland Yard’ sign is not just a marker of dominance but also part of the visual landscape of 1970s cop shows and news reports, part of an ongoing process of what the city is and how it works. In the time since its founding, though, our ideas of power have changed, and so have the practices of policing and modes of surveillance. The emptied sign of Superego points to an infinite future of ever more reflective self-administration, but also one that can be used as a way toward a more conscious reflection not on the self, not on what the police does, but on the functioning, acceptance and display of power and authority.

The multiple media used by Wallinger in ID take us through the permutations of the urban subject as a thing in flux, caught in flows of data, physical movement and change, and capable of opening up to wider, more critical perspectives. Whichever centring device you choose (and art is one), decentring remains a potential, a prospect, a place from which to look at seeing, and then to see differently. Wallinger has used the methods of the phenomena he represents and works with as formal guides – the works of ID act as seeing devices, and therefore are much more effective than simply content-based politics. It is not a disservice to the artist to construe this show as a properly theoretical mobilisation of image and object. I intended to leave alone the mild pun of the show’s title, but it finally strikes me that even though identity policing exploits current fears to become more focused and targeted, in fact official power continues to struggle with establishing identity, even, or precisely, as they strive to control the subject through it.

Mark Wallinger: ID was on view 20 February – 7 May 2016.