Socialist Worker

Mark Wallinger: anti-war art and the state of Britain today

Mark Wallinger and Leon Kuhn spoke to Anindya Bhattacharyya about State Britain, the new anti-war artwork

Issue No. 2036

Artist Mark Wallinger with his new work, State Britain  (Pic: Sam Drake © Tate 2006)

Artist Mark Wallinger with his new work, State Britain (Pic: Sam Drake © Tate 2006)


Every age has its defining political struggle, and the anti-war movement occupies this role today. Yet Britain's visual art scene has by and large avoided directly addressing the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the protests against it.

This fact makes the latest work by leading British sculptor Mark Wallinger all the more surprising. State Britain is currently on show at the Tate Britain in central London. It was commissioned by the Tate last year and kept secret until its unveiling earlier this month.

The work is a reconstruction of Brian Haw's ramshackle collection of anti-war placards, banners and posters, exactly as it was in Parliament Square before most of it was torn down by police in May last year.

'It's a sculpture, a reproduction,' explains Wallinger. 'You can think of it as a historical reconstruction if you like, except that historical reconstructions are ordinarily of something considered rather 'important' in an authoritarian way.'

The process of reconstructing the protest involved a great deal of work, he adds, with a team of people sourcing images and sorting out copyright issues.

Once built the placards were 'weathered' to make them look as if they had been out in the open for months. 'It feels like it's been through a lot, that it's been through a conflict,' says Wallinger. 'There’s something rather elegiac about it.'

Looking closely at the work reveals all sorts of peculiar details. One of the boards carries an image by Socialist Worker cartoonist Leon Kuhn – it is marked on the back 'property of Brian Haw, donated by Michael Culver'.

August

Leon recalls receiving an email from someone called Michael Culver several months ago asking for a large print of one of his cartoons. He sent one off, but had no idea that it was destined for Haw's display – let alone the august surroundings of the Tate.

There's also a sense in which State Britain captures the debris of the anti-war movement that has been through Parliament Square so many times over the past few years.

Different elements of the display refer to particular events, such as newspaper cuttings about the death of Jean Charles de Menezes.

However, as a record of the movement it is incomplete, reliant as it is on Brian Haw's idiosyncracies. The iconic posters of the anti-war movement and the Stop the War Coalition's logo are disappointingly absent.

Wallinger himself was living and working in Berlin during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and says he felt a sense of detatchment from events in this country. 'It was odd watching it all on 24-hour news channels,' he says.

'There was the big march, but I was seeing it from a distance. The rush to war was so strange and depressing – everyone in Berlin thought it was just surreal. Then when the war broke out, you had all these 'embedded reporters' who clearly didn’t know what was going on.'

It was the government's decision to restrict the right to protest in Parliament Square that impelled Wallinger into addressing the war.

'I was appalled that the government got the Serious and Organised Crime Act through with so little fuss or protest,' he says. 'I wanted to do something about that.'

The fact that Haw's protest directly faced parliament was another factor drawing him to the project, Wallinger adds.

'It was like parliament's guilty conscience, or a mirror held up to them that no one paid close enough attention to – they didn't want to see how ugly they really were.'

The work itself is cut in half by an arc of black tape running through it on the floor, which is designed to symbolise the boundary of the protest exclusion zone around parliament set up by the Serious and Organised Crime Act.

In one sense it's not surprising that an artist would make a point about freedom of expression, but for Wallinger the right to protest has a deeper significance.

'I was working in a bookshop in central London during the 1980s,' he recalls. 'It was during the miners' strike and miners would be outside the bookshop protesting and collecting money. The police kept arresting them under all sorts of obscure laws.'

Wallinger came from a left wing family and his early experiences of politics came during the clashes of the Thatcher era.

'There was an anger that drove most of the things I did in the 1980s,' he says, 'an anger at the misrepresentation, the brutal mindset of people putting out this picture of England that had nothing to do with where I was living.'

This concern with the 'politics of representation' has been a feature of Wallinger's work. In 1999 his sculpture Ecce Homo, a life size statue of Jesus Christ, was temporarily on display in Traflagar Square.

'Ecce Homo had a political intent,' says Wallinger. 'I wanted Christ to be as odd and strange as Islam looks to the majority of white, woolly Church of England types.'

The public nature of Trafalgar Square was another factor, he adds. 'He was the only life size thing in the square – the rest of the statues are huge and all about empire.

Public reaction

'And then you have this one person, Christ, who raises a lot of questions about our responsibilities – the responsibility has been given over to people about the fate of this man.'

The Tate is itself a public space, but Wallinger confesses that he finds it difficult to gauge public reaction to his work, noting ruefully that as a successful artist he is mostly 'selling to people with large expendible incomes'.

Leon Kuhn sympathised with this feeling of alienation. 'As a visual artist there's a lack of contact with the audience that you never know quite what to do with.' One of his solutions is to take his work on anti-war demonstrations and sell postcards of his images.

Wallinger remains committed to the public and political nature of his art. 'It's good to see school parties visiting the exhibit and discussing concepts like freedom of expression. That's what sculpture is about – teaching people to look a bit more closely.'

State Britain is on at the Tate Britain until 27 August. Entrance is free. Go to www.tate.org.uk/britain/


Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Article information

Reviews
Sat 3 Feb 2007, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 2036
Share this article


Tags



Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.