Anarchy Goes Etablissement
Artist Mark Wallinger’s latest exhibition at Tate Britain “State Britain”.
“I am an antichrist. I am an anarchist. Don’t know what I want, but I know how to get it. I wanna destroy the passer-by…” Infamous last words from the late ‘70’s punk band The Sex Pistols that captured the attention of disillusioned youth searching for something or someone to connect to. The Pistols were the advert of hope promising change in what was considered by many a bleak state-of-affairs in the UK. Some say their agenda was juvenile and destined for failure. Bucking a system that they would eventually have to bow down to if they were ever going to “make it” proved counterproductive- eventually leading to the demise of the band and the anarchistic movement that it represented. Artist Mark Wallinger seems to be making a statement of his own in an odd place with his first formal exhibition in over seven years at the Tate Britain. Can Wallinger muster up the filth and the fury so wildly executed by the teen dream Sex Pistols, or has his tactic of creating shock art lost its spark?
Until the late 90’s, Mark Wallinger’s claim to fame were large portraits of horses- probably as far as one can get from anarchy. After being commissioned in 1999 to fill the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, London, Wallinger had become a full-fledged critically acclaimed member of the art etablissement. His latest showing State Britain is a recreation of the controversial visual protest executed by peace campaigner Brian Haw that existed on the front lawn of Parliament Square for over five years.
What is initially interesting about this 40 metre long “art work” is the chosen location- Immediately I get the feeling that this production is out of context in a museum housing art from the early 1500’s. The Tate Britain’s regal high ceilings and echoey acoustics seem a bit too grand for 600 pieces of replicated trash.
Far more clever than Wallinger riding on the political coattails of Haw, is the fact that not a single piece in this collection comes from the original Haw project- every single poster, banner, and personal effects, including Haw’s shoes, is amazingly reproduced. If anyone deserves praise here, it’s Wallinger’s archival replica assistants who painstakingly brought back the feeling of despair, anger, and isolation Haw must have felt right up to his eviction in 2006- even his combat boots are left next to a tethered tarpaulin reminding us that Haw is still present and fighting.
One last reminder that Wallinger is not the genius here are the two infinitely more powerful paintings by celebrated anti-war cartoonist Leon Kuhn- The Proud Parents and 3 Guilty Men. Luckily for Wallinger, this is a redeeming reason to check out State Britain.
“When I pass protesters every day at Downing Street, and believe me, you name it, they protest against it, I may not like what they call me, but I thank God they can. That’s called freedom.” This is one of the looming banners hanging over the State Britain exhibition. It’s a quote from Brian Haw and obviously a characterization of his cause. Unlike The Sex Pistols, Haw doesn’t want to “destroy the passer-by”. His aim seems to be anarchy by way of inclusion, not exclusion. Wallinger is just another EMI selling the premise of anarchy to the world in a context that is controllable…but we’re not buying it!