Selfhood has been the main, abiding theme of Mark Wallinger’s art in recent years. For his debut exhibition with Hauser & Wirth, spread across the gallery’s two neighboring London spaces, he gave the concept a psychoanalytic spin and elevated it into an overall curatorial scheme—starting with the “id Paintings” (2015), seventeen of which occupied virtually all of the first venue. In these enormous, abstract canvases, Wallinger made symmetrical patterns of smeary, swoopy dabs and dark, knuckled areas by applying black paint directly with both hands at once. The works’ dimensions, too, were a sort of personal gesture, their widths based on Wallinger’s arm span, their heights precisely double that, as if to incorporate some sort of Vitruvian Man–like metric. But rather than invoking science or rationality, the works are meant to embody primal, impulsive actions, an ambidextrous channeling of instinct and desire. The designs, with their vertical symmetry, appropriately bring to mind giant Rorschach blots; and, certainly, it is difficult not to give in to the play of fantasy, visualizing all sorts of macabre figures and faces within their depths.
The only other work in the first venue was a pair of small, overlapping photographs, titled—following the Freudian scheme—Ego. Shot by Wallinger on an iPhone, the images show his own hands posed to evoke the famous action of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam—the work serving as a statement of secular, solipsistic self-belief, an act of humanistic, not to mention hubristic, self-genesis. Superego (2016), meanwhile, exhibited in the second venue, is a sculpture consisting of a wedge-shaped form rotating atop a pole, recalling, for London audiences, the iconic revolving sign that marks New Scotland Yard, the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police. Wallinger’s version of this authoritarian symbol is mirror-plated, yet, situated above head height, it never captures one’s reflection. The point, perhaps, is to imply a sort of impossible demand for self-surveillance. But the fact that its interpretation relies so much on a niche reference makes the work seem rather tenuous, oddly whimsical and unmenacing.
The most effective pieces, by contrast, were those that seemed to have more inherent, self-contained meanings and that, perhaps not coincidentally, avoided the too-neat psychoanalytic conceit. Shadow Walker (2011) is a life-size video of the artist’s shadow as he navigates a busy London thoroughfare—the dark form appearing more persistent, more mesmerizingly substantial, than the legs of passersby that it fleetingly ripples across. Ever Since (2012), another life-size projection, depicts the beautiful frontage of an Edwardian barbershop. The only obviously moving element in the otherwise static vignette is the spinning barber’s pole above the door, its spiral stripes scrolling away continuously as if the footage were somehow endless. In fact, the video runs on the briefest of loops, the pole only turning exactly once. If you look closely, you can just make out a clock inside the shop perpetually repeating the same two seconds.
Our perception of time, of course, determines our sense of how we inhabit the world, and thus defines our notions of self. These connections culminated in the show in a final, wonderfully elegant work, Orrery (2016). An orrery is typically a clocklike mechanical model of the solar system. Wallinger’s version consists of four monitors playing looped footage of a tree in a traffic roundabout, filmed from a circling car, with each screen showing the tree during a different season. The tree is an oak, a classic symbol of Britishness, so there are connotations of national identity at play. The most profound sense one gets, though, when standing amid the circle of monitors, encompassed by the four orbiting views, watching the tree and the seasons mechanically turning, is of cycles within cycles of time—with humanity positioned at the all-seeing center, omniscient yet cosmically irrelevant.
According to a mutual friend, Mark Wallinger is an insomniac. The 2004 performance Sleeper, for which the British artist donned a bear costume and spent nights wandering around Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie, shuffled many layers of symbolism—the bear is Berlin’s mascot, a sleeper a dormant Cold War agent or terrorist—but it was also a comic metaphor for the trials of sleeplessness.
At Wallinger’s recent show in Berlin (all works 2010), the walls were hung haphazardly with pixelated cell-phone photographs of anonymous people sleeping on public transport (“The Unconscious”). The prints vary from 1 to over 6 feet on a side, and the chaotic display was in keeping with the fugitive quality of the subjects’ sleep. Strewn across the floor were 1,000 stones of different sizes (Steine), each numbered by hand with white marker, a labor—counting stones instead of sheep—which might have occupied many midnight hours. One could also count letters on wallpaper (WORD). Filling a freestanding wall, the letters comprise the entire contents of The Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1918, printed without spaces or punctuation between words. The proliferation of stones connects to the aggregate of pixels in the photographs and to the screen of letters, rendering literary culture as a typographical buzz on the retina, a sky full of stars. Wallinger sees the cosmos in a pebble, a letter, a pixel.
Insomnia can be a symptom of depression, and there is a nihilistic edge to these expansive gestures. The wonder in Wallinger’s intimations of the incommensurability of nature is framed by a taxonomical fervor that never loses the awareness of its own inadequacy. The snapshots of travelers are poised between empathetic humanism and the diminishment of individuals to abject urban flotsam. Numbers and pixels reduce stones and faces to ciphers representing our inability to assimilate the world. WORD never allows you to forget that it is your own intelligence that discerns poetic detail in the morass of letters.
Wallinger objectifies our disenchantment. The Magic of Things—a 5-minute video shown on a monitor—collages clunky supernatural passages from the 1970s television series “Bewitched”: a succession of floating teacups and self-packing suitcases. According to Mark (100 chairs) marshals into rows 100 unique secondhand chairs, each labeled “MARK” in felt-tip pen, negating their individuality while claiming it for the artist. A string connects each chair to a hook mounted high on the facing wall, like a line in a perspectival diagram. The installation implies an eye that is also an “I,” observing all the little “I”s of the chairs. Here again, an axis is set up between quotidian enumeration and the transcending of it, an axis that the clumsy symbolism of the installation already undermines, like a puppet show in which all the strings are on view. Wallinger suggests absolutes, only to repeatedly bounce us back to our limited, mundane selves, helpless, lost in sleep.
Photo: View of Mark Wallinger’s installation According to Mark (100 chairs), 2010, chairs, black marker and white string; at carlier | gebauer.