Playful Man

By Bonaventura, Paul | New Statesman (1996), November 6, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Playful Man

Bonaventura, Paul, New Statesman (1996)


Britart is pointless interior design, but one man stands apart, writes PAUL BONAVENTURA

In his ground-breaking study of the importance of play, Homo Ludens, the Dutch philosopher Johan Huizinga begins with the following remark: "Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing. [Civilisation] does not come from play like a babe detaching itself from the womb: it arises in and as play, and never leaves it."

During the course of this remarkable book, Huizinga demonstrates that all aspects of human intercourse are inextricably linked to play. Play-making, he says, is marked by an absolute order. Into an imperfect world and the confusion of life, it brings limited perfection. The relativity and fragility of play worlds are there for all to see, but we continue to invest them with importance. We want our play worlds to be taken seriously. Together with sport--that other language in the condition of play--making autonomy -- art is the most clear-cut demonstration of the play factor in operation, and nowhere in contemporary visual art is that factor employed to more emphatic purpose than in the work of Mark Wallinger.

Born in 1959, Wallinger studied at Chelsea School of Art and Goldsmiths College. Since 1983, he has been the subject of major solo exhibitions in Birmingham, London, Frankfurt, Basel, Milan and New York. He was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1995, received the prestigious Henry Moore Sculpture Fellowship to work at the British School at Rome in 1998 and will represent Britain at next year' s Venice Biennale. "Credo", Wallinger's mid-career retrospective, has just opened at Tate Liverpool, providing audiences in this country with an opportunity to acquaint themselves with a comprehensive selection of his work.

Outside the museum and gallery sector, Wallinger was largely unknown until he was chosen by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce to produce the first of three temporary sculptures for the Fourth Plinth, a "cenotaph-excused" which has remained unoccupied since it was first erected in London's Trafalgar Square in 1841. Ecce Homo, Wallinger's modest, chalky representation of Jesus Christ as everyman, graced the pedestal as Big Ben rang in the new millennium just over ten months ago. It supplied a stark contrast to the dark, unmemorable statues elsewhere in the square, which are currently exercising the imagination of the Mayor of London. "Whether or not we regard Jesus as a deity," remarked Wallinger, at the time of the sculpture's unveiling, "he was, at the very least, a political leader of an oppressed people. Ecce Homo alludes to the recent historical past and its sad record of religious and racial intolerance."

Art generates aspects of culture. Concurrently, artists react to the world that surrounds them. Younger artists get into the media at the moment because they are seen to be mad, bad or dangerous. Wallinger's work proposes an alternative newsworthiness, one that steers clear of the show-business strategies associated with "Apocalypse" (at the Royal Academy) and "Ant Noises" (Saatchi Gallery). As Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas veer ever further in their work towards the glossy pointlessness of interior design, Wallinger continues to stand apart, addressing his attention to matters of universal concern beyond the therapeutic confines of the studio.

This is not to imply that Wallinger's work is grim-faced. Indeed, the artist's publication for his 1998 show at the Delfina in London, re-exhibited the following year at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, reproduces an oft-repeated quotation from Samuel Beckett: "In the beginning was the pun." The pun underpins much of Beckett's writing, and puns, quips and gags run like a pulse through the best of Wallinger's output, too.

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