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Here Comes The Mirror Man: Mark Wallinger In Hastings
John Quin , August 4th, 2018 09:07

John Quin finds poetry in motion at Mark Wallinger's latest solo show at the Jerwood Gallery, Hastings

Birdman (detail; 2018) Marc Wallinger. Archival Digital Prints on Diband. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth; © Mark Wallinger

Do you like mirrors? Lots of artists do; they like playing games with them, they like using them as metaphors, as allegories. Mirrors in art: we can quickly picture them in such famous paintings as van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434), Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus (c. 1647-51), his Las Meninas (1656), and Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1881-2) but what of the actual objects themselves? Michelangelo Pistoletto has long incorporated them into his paintings, Robert Morris made boxes with mirrored glass surfaces and then there is Room No.2 (1966) by Lucas Samaras, a mirror on wood installation that prefigures the infinities of reflection caught in Fripp and Eno’s (No Pussyfooting) (1973) album cover.

I don’t like mirrors. Incorporating mirrors into artworks is all well and good if you are fond of your own reflection, if you can implant your own image into something that might be considered as art, well… bully for you. But what if you have significant reservations about form, specifically your form, when you catch yourself squinting and frowning back at the horror? What if your own facial features frankly frighten you, what if you shrink in fear at that pear-shaped thing frozen in a side-on view? Mirrors can be unforgiving, even if they are not of the distorting carnival type; Mark Wallinger gives it to us straight in his new house of fun by the seaside.

The main hall at the Jerwood features Wallinger’s work The Human Figure in Space (2007) where we find a floor to ceiling mirror on one entire wall. The other walls are blackened and covered with a geometric grid made from 3 miles of kite twine. This sight conjures ancient memories of blackboards and school jotters as well as Duchamp’s obfuscatory curatorial ploy – Mile of String (1942). Wallinger’s grid here could be as a minimalist sculpture in and of itself but that’s not its true intent, the grid is only part of the piece. The grid is there to frame you because you complete the work, that is to say your reflection does as you move in the mirror. Get someone to take a photograph as you stride and – presto! – see your own moving figure framed by the grid; we are immediately reminded of the beginnings of cinema itself, specifically the findings of that eminent Victorian innovator of photography, Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904).

Muybridge’s studies of animal and human motion used a similar set-up. Which is fine and dandy if you are young and thin and attractive but not so good mind if you need some exercise. Not a few contemporary artists like Wallinger and Steven Pippin dig Muybridge. They love his wild biography (emigration to America aged 20, serious head injury after being thrown from a stagecoach at 30, justifiable homicide of his wife’s lover at 44) and his rapt attention to motion. He did this with the innovative use of multiple cameras prefiguring the effects in contemporary cinema such as the concept of ‘bullet time’ – the ability to freeze motion, to detach objects from time and space. And this is what fascinates Wallinger, an effect that recalls Nicholson Baker’s The Fermata (1994) where a fold in time makes the rest of the world in the mirror just stop dead.

This theme is made explicit in Birdman (2018), a set of archival digital prints mounted on small Dibond panels. These shots were taken along the coast westwards at Worthing and feature contestants at the International Birdman contest where a group of crazies launch themselves off a ramp at the end of the pier and try to fly. These exquisite images resemble delicate oils as if painted by a master with the finest of Kolinsky weasel brushes. We see figures framed against clouds with no land in sight; these are the men who fell to earth. But they are not stylish Thomas Jerome Newton/Bowie types – they are wacky figures, absurdly dressed like the one done up as Buzz Lightyear who we see spookily frozen as if gravity didn’t exist.

Wallinger has spoken (in a lecture interestingly enough on his spiritual big brother, Bruce Nauman) about gravity and falls and the moment Buzz Lightyear ‘realises he is not a superhero, he is just a toy. His existential moment as he flies, rather falls, is thrown through space.’ Wallinger, unsurprisingly, has long been fascinated by the myth of Icarus.

Which brings us to Landscape and the Fall of Icarus (2007) in which five TV screens show slowed home videos of people either falling or about to fall. The title references Breugel’s (contested) painting of the same title from 1560s where life goes on in the foreground but in a corner Icarus has just splashed into the sea. We are, in Auden’s words from Musée des Beaux Arts (1938), seeing ‘something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky’. In Wallinger’s work we see paragliders crashing, a bloke trying to cross a river on two ropes, another on a zipwire heading for the mud. If only they could see themselves.

To see ourselves as others see us. Wallinger has a long history of being fascinated by mirroring as with other works not shown here such as Upside Down and Back to Front, the Spirit Meets the Optic in Illusion (1997) that sees a bottle of booze with its black optic sitting on a mirror or Stranger (1990) a set of paired passport photographs mounted on the reverse side of mirrors. Then there are his works honing in on the more amusing effects of reflection such as the palindromically titled Regard a Mere Mad Rager (1993), a video of Tommy Cooper reflected in a mirror, or The Word in the Desert II (2000) featuring that levitating shop mirror stunt beloved of Harry Worth, another comedian from the 1970’s.

Continuing the moving images theme this Hastings outing of Wallinger’s works more as a trailer and it is something of a tease given that the show features only a fraction of his terrifically diverse output.

Mark Wallinger, The Human Figure In Space, is at Jerwood Gallery, Hastings, until 7 October 2018