Horses for courses
had also been nominated in 1995, but Damien Hirst won it that year with Mother and Child Divided, a cow and calf mounted in formaldehyde. Wallinger’s A Real Work of Art, a real life racehorse was an also-ran.
He’s always been a political artist working from a leftist perspective. That’s not easy in 2017. Mark, I have to ask, what is the purpose of art in times of crisis? “Well, to try and be effective. At the moment everyone needs to pull together really. I don’t know. I look at it and think Donald Trump’s going to implode.
“I keep meaning to look up an old episode of The Twilight Zone where a town’s under the tyranny of a six-yearold boy. It’s a bit like that really.”
Perhaps one of his most lauded works was Ecce Homo. In 1999 he created a marble resin life-sized statue of Jesus Christ. It became the first sculpture to be mounted on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square. That, he says now, was probably the most instantaneous idea he ever had.
“At the end of the phone call I sort of knew what I was going to do. The fact that Christ and Christianity was the one thing it seemed one couldn’t mention coming up to the Millennium was quite strange. ”
THE statue is in storage although it should make a reappearance this year. Not in Scotland though. Sometimes, he says, reflecting on artwork he did years ago can feel like looking back through the wrong end of the telescope. “If you still like them there’s a mixture of euphoria and melancholy.”
The id Paintings, though, are too new to prompt any mourning of the passing of time. They are a continuation of Wallinger’s ongoing fascination with self-portraiture, one that began 10 years ago and has now brought him full circle back to painting.
“I had moved into a new studio which was a very tall factory space. I ordered some tall stretchers that were made so they were twice my height and my span in width.”
“I was interested to see what would happen if I pushed it to really epic proportions. And towards the end I started using my hands to paint and then I made one that was entirely hand prints using both hands.
“And then finally the penny dropped. I’m a bit slow on the uptake. It took me until I was 50 until I started using my name Mark as a pun.”
The idea was to have his two hands do the same thing on opposite sides of the canvas; in effect to create a mirror image. “The first three I made in one day and they were just feeling about, stepping back and seeing the record of the traces of this thing. It was kind of blind performance. Then I flipped the thing the other way so something that was already kind of intriguing and strange was estranged further by being upside down.
“I suppose the other thing about the paintings was I had to psych myself up. They had to be very instantaneous, not least because it was black acrylic paint which dries rapidly and I didn’t allow myself to paint wet over dry. So things had to be resolved in one session.”
Other new works include iPhoneinspired works such as Ego – a take on Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam (“I hope that was doubly ironic about hubris. Michelangelo had the hubris to think to paint that in the first place.”) Then there is Orrery, which came about because he was looking after his ill mother and to get wi-fi had to drive down to the local library. That journey meant he had to go around the same roundabout every day. At one point he started filming the tree in the middle of the roundabout on every journey. “The only sophistication beyond that was doing it with Blu-tack so I could keep my eyes on the road. I kept a steady 14 miles an hour, which is quite a niggly speed.”
Where there any beeped horns? “Oh, yeah. Expletives, yeah.”
If anything, he says, such works are the result of him learning “to hang onto half an idea until it meets the other half. Patience. That’s it, really. And a sort of imperative for making.” That’s the Protestant work ethic in him, he admits. “There was a Picasso quote I came across the other day which I quite like. He said he believed in inspiration but you have to be working at the time.”
He is now in his late fifties and there has been some stocktaking going on of late. Hence his decision to stop drinking. What was behind that anyway? “I needed to really.”
Is he still a betting man? “Do you know, I’m a big absteemer these days.”
What was the last bet I had? I had a friend who has a horse which had an each-way chance but aside from that … I still love horses and I still go from time to time and I have friends in that world. I used to bet every day, which is not a good thing.”
Did he usually win? “No. No one does.”
In life at least. In art, Wallinger is still worth a punt.
Photograph: Oliver Goodrich