Author of the exhibition concept, curator: Pavel Brunclík
Curator for the National Gallery in Prague: Tomáš Vlček
Of all the instances of Mark Wallinger’s (born 1959) very rich artistic biography which we were inspired by when inviting the artist to hold an exhibition in the National Gallery, Prague, we would like to mention, first and foremost, Wallinger’s participation in the 49th Venice Biennale, held in 2001, where he represented the British art scene with his solo exhibition.
The exhibition of the artist’s works in the British Pavilion in the Biennale Gardens was introduced by his Façade (2001), a photographic replica of the front of the building which, featuring the same dimensions as the real front, was installed just before the actual entrance to the building, thus, as a visual illusion or a temporary appearance, both concealing and adumbrating it. By the pavilion, the artist hoisted the British Union Flag, titled Oxymoron (1997), in which the blue and red, the traditional colours of the Union Flag, were replaced with the orange and green of the Irish Tricolour. The dominant element of the exhibition area inside the British Pavilion was the sculpture Ecce Homo (1999), a figure of marbled synthetic resin depicting a young man with the features of Christ. In the next room, the sculpture was referred to in twelve drawing interpretations constituting the installation series Life Class (2001), while, in other rooms, it was accompanied by the video projections Angel (1997) and Threshold to the Kingdom (2000), the projection Ghost (2001) and the object Tardis (2001). Well balanced and clearly structured, the entire exhibition highlighted the determining aspects of Wallinger’s work: his reflection on human identity within the controversial multiple meanings of phenomenality and its representation; his interpretations of the relationship between the everyday reality of British or, more generally, global civilization and its metaphysical dimension expressed by means of, among other things, metaphors relating to its Christian roots, the culture in which they were shaped.
Wallinger’s concern with the contradictory relationships between aspects of reality, differing in terms of both axiology and noetics, and their inner dynamics, features irony and a sense of paradox. In the catalogue documenting the installation of the artist’s sculpture Ecce Homo (1999) in Trafalgar Square, London, where it was temporarily placed on a vacant plinth outside the National Gallery in 1999, i.e. at the turn of the millennium, Wallinger accompanied the pictures of the sculpture with passages from Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita, in which Satan tells two infidel Muscovite writers about the encounter between Jesus, in bonds, and Pontius Pilate… However, Wallinger’s irony, if we receive the message correctly, is an instance of something more substantial than irony in itself, something we may understand as an effort to develop an artistic standpoint which is more comprehensive in terms of ethics and whose underlying element is also the artist’s insight into the spiritual dimension of his own creative process.
It is Wallinger’s reflection on the horizon of everyday realities and the possibilities of its transcendence that may have become our main motivation for inviting the artist to hold an exhibition in the National Gallery in Prague, and it also determined the concept and the venue of this exhibition. The exhibition has been prepared for the unique environment of the Convent of St. Agnes.
Mark Wallinger visited the Convent of St. Agnes of Bohemia, one of the most significant places in Prague’s cultural and spiritual history, last autumn, and he became well acquainted with the fortunes of this venue. The convent’s complex of churches and chapels, the major part of which was made available to him for the presentation of his art, left a strong impression upon him. He has not perceived it as a gallery area of neutral meaning, but as a place which expresses a long spiritual tradition and the mystery encompassed in this tradition, a place which is an image in itself before anything is even put on display there. The rationale behind Wallinger’s exhibition is for his work to enter a dialogue with the legacy of this former oblate institution, which is to be revived in people’s minds by the exhibition. And he made a point of being sensitive enough to make this dialogue resound to a proper degree.
He has chosen a single video installation for the exhibition, namely the above-mentioned Threshold to the Kingdom, which is placed in the main axis of the Church of the Holy Saviour, from where it will clearly correspond to the access area, as well as the rest of the premises, which he has deliberately left empty.
The video installation depicts the transit terminal of a London airport with passengers who have just arrived and gone through passport control. The entire video projection is accompanied by Allegri’s Miserere, church music composed to the lyrics of Psalm 51. The spiritual music, in combination with the metaphoric dimension of the content of individual scenes, with their fine editing and slow-motion rhythm of projection, in which the movement of the passengers going through the transit gate loses the air of immediate reality, opens and develops a mental space for reflecting on the multiple forms of the relationships between the sacral and profane orders of existence and personality as an open task of their mediation. One of the questions we can raise in relation to this work is what kingdom the artist is referring to: is it the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland or the Heavenly Kingdom, which Allegri’s Miserere is also referring to? Or is it both and the relationship between both of the entities?
Mark Wallinger is one of the most respected personalities on the contemporary British art scene and his work has met with a considerable international response. We appreciate the fact that nine years after his solo exhibition in the Jiří Švestka Gallery (1997) and his participation in the group exhibition held at the British Council (1997) we have another opportunity to meet with Wallinger’s art in Prague, this time on the premises of the National Gallery.