The Russian Linesman: Frontiers, Borders and Thresholds
Curated by Mark Wallinger
The Hayward, Southbank Centre, London
18 February 2009 to 4 May 2009
Like many a successful contemporary artist, Mark Wallinger is a controversial figure, adored by some as the epitome of avant-garde experimentalism, reviled by others as the acme of postmodern vacuity. In 2007 Wallinger won the Turner Prize for a piece called “State Britain”, which replicated materials originally assembled by Brian Haw during his long-running protest against the war in Iraq. Though the Turner Prize jury praised Wallinger’s installation for its “visceral intensity and historic importance”, many dismissed it as an instance of conceptual minimalism gone badly wrong, lamenting the fact that a vague gesture of social commentary could prove enough to propel a mere mock-up to iconic status.
Wallinger delights in confounding his audience through the sheer daring quirkiness of his endeavours, which take a mischievous joy in toying with the boundary between what is art and what is not. Wallinger’s Sleeper (2005), for instance, is a film about ten nights the artist spent wandering through Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie in a bear suit.
Over the last two decades, Wallinger has become one of the most emblematic figures of British art. In 1999 his “Ecce Homo”—a life-sized representation of Christ with his hands tied behind his back—became the first piece of art to be installed on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth. Earlier this month, he won the commission to produce the Ebbsfleet Landmark, solidifying his place at the very top of the national artistic league tables. Walllinger’s proposed design, which has been dubbed the southern answer to Anthony Gormley’s “Angel of the North”, will take the form of a white horse 33 times larger than life.
“The Russian Linesman”, which opened in London on 17 February, confirms Wallinger’s place at the very heart of the nation’s artistic scene and marks the artist’s début as a curator.
To enter the exhibition involves navigating the brutalist architectural lines of The Hayward, a grey, dirty-looking block at the heart of London’s Southbank Centre. The show begins with a (literal) lift. Upon reaching the gallery level, the visitor alights under a sound hub that effuses the soft, mellifluous Irish tones of James Joyce’s voice, reading from Finnegans Wake (1939). The highbrow welcome—adumbrating a kind of baptism by Art into the world of Mark Wallinger—teeters ambivalently between curatorial reverence and curatorial hubris.
The build-up to the gallery, which involves crossing multiple dividing lines between the outside world and the inner precinct of the art space, accords with the exhibition’s subtitle: “Frontiers, Borders and Thresholds”. The arrival by lift also sets up an anticipatory visual rhyme with one of Wallinger’s best-known works, Time and Relative Dimensions in Space or TARDIS (2001), a version of the time-and-space-travel machine featured in the BBC’s Doctor Who that sits in an adjacent room.
This internal echo reflects the exhibition’s ambition to take the visitor on a journey through vast swathes of time and space. For what Wallinger has assembled in “The Russian Linesman” is a wildly heterogeneous collection of artwork and artefacts spanning many centuries and many countries. These include a 2000-year old Roman herm, photographs of Mars’s Twin Peaks, via Albert Dürer’s work on perspective, and 19th-century items relating to stereoscopic photography and comparative anatomy. Wallinger’s selection of contemporary pieces features Thomas Demand’s Poll (2001), a wall-sized photograph that replicates the room where the 2001 Florida election recount took place, as well as footage of the tight-rope set up by Philippe Petit between the Twin Towers in 1974 (a stunt revisited by James Marsh in Man on Wire, which took the Oscar for best documentary at this year’s Academy Awards). Wallinger’s exhibition pulls in many different directions. “Only connect” is the show’s unvoiced injunction to its visitors. But so disparate a collection of objects makes it impossible to retrieve any significant message or unified meaning from the display.
The show’s title, “The Russian Linesman”, refers to the Azerbaijani official (mistakenly referred to as being Russian in contemporary press reports) who determined the outcome of the 1966 football World Cup by calling an ambiguous goal for England against Germany (the man later stated that his decision might have had something to do with Stalingrad).
Although the emblematic sporting moment does not feature explicitly, much of the material Wallinger has chosen to showcase charts similarly political terrain. National boundaries are a leitmotif. There are photographs of the Green Mile in Nicosia (the capital of divided Cyprus), of the 49th Parallel (an equatorial line doubling as a political border) and of perennially contested Jerusalem. There is YouTube footage of the daily flag-lowering ceremony conducted on the Indian-Pakistani border. The Mark Wallinger flag, Oxymoron (which is part of the exhibition though it flies outside from the Jubilee flagpole) superimposes the green, white and orange hues of the Irish Tricolour onto the pattern of the Union Jack. These images are evocative, but not complex. The message is (too) simple: there are boundaries in the world, and these often mean trouble.
Politics mixes freely with related concerns. Death—that most universal, fundamental, dreaded of thresholds—is a prominent theme. One of the most striking displays comprises a series of blown-up digital photographs of 19th-century life masks. Appearing in ghostly, strangely voluptuous black and white are the faces of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake and Keats. These life masks—plaster casts taken of a living subject’s face, and different, in this crucial respect, from the memorial death masks which enjoyed such a vogue in Victorian times—were made by painful means (with the subject having, for instance, to breathe in through straws) for scientific purposes.
Photographed long after their subjects’ death, the life masks force an intellectual double-take. Do these faces appear to us from the land of the living or from the land of the dead? These Romantic poets, whose writings invest so much in the idea of artistic immortality, are caught in “a suspended state between life, death and sleep”. In their 21st-century reincarnation, the masks bear witness to Wallinger’s fascination with the idea of the copy, the replica, the simulacrum—with the countless ways that art returns to earlier exempla and more or less “ready-made” materials for inspiration. The boundary in play here (as in much postmodernist art) is that between what we take to be original and what is, in fact, second-hand.
This interest comes across powerfully in the anonymous sculpture of the Dying Gaul. Struggling at life’s final threshold, the image of the wounded warrior acts as yet another reminder of the significance of boundaries (between nations at war, between life and death), but it also focuses attention on the issue of artistic lineage. For the sculpture we see is no original, but rather the plaster cast of a Roman marble, which is itself a copy of an earlier Greek bronze. Further emphasizing the exhibit’s point about artistic descent and repetition, the next room features the cast (which is in fact also the cast of a cast) of a flayed corpse arranged in the posture of the dying Gaul for use by generations of Royal Academy students. Art copies art as much as it imitates life: such is one of the statements that “The Russian Linesman” repeatedly makes.
By choosing a typically vague, postmodernist catch-all like “lines and borders” for its theme, “The Russian Linesman” sets itself a trap into which it duly falls. The exhibition’s lack of unity undermines its artistic pretensions: ultimately, it is simply a rather interesting collection of museum curios. Are lines enough of a cohesive concept to make the assembled pieces merit description as conceptual art?
And, in any case, are lines and borders truly what this exhibition is about? In the end, “The Russian Linesman” is less about borders and thresholds, or death, or politics, or perception, than it is about Mark Wallinger. Although individual pieces have intrinsic interest, the show’s value resides principally in the self-portraiture we infer: in its delineation of Wallinger’s own concerns and lines of descent.
Does it succeed? Alas, it never comes close to achieving its potential either as an artistic enquiry or as an autobiographical account. It is surely worth viewing, if only as the reflection of an inquisitive, ludic, politically engaged mind. But it is neither particularly deep nor engagingly new. For many people, for many things, “rather interesting” is good enough. Not so, perhaps, for an exhibition curated by one of the most eminent artists in the country.
Scarlett Baron  received her DPhil from Christ Church, Oxford. The Interviews editor for the Oxonian Review, she is currently a Prize Fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford.