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Negative images

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NED DENNY on the no man's land between ignorance and enlightenment

Mark Wallinger's new show at the Whitechapel Art Gallery initially seemed cold, over-cerebral and nakedly manipulative, but something lodged in my head and forced a second look. Ghost (2001), one of the most recent works in the exhibition, is a full-size photographic negative of George Stubbs' s famous equestrian portrait Whistlejacket. Lit from behind, the normally brown horse glows with a supernatural pallor, an effect increased by the single slender horn that Wallinger has appended to its forehead. Recalled not as a tampered negative but as an actual X-ray of Stubbs's canvas, this transformation of Whistlejacket into a unicorn seemed, like a symbol of occult knowledge, to suggest a magical potency hidden behind the surface of things. There is, Ghost appeared to be hinting, far more to our stale cultural inheritance than meets the eye.

The two extremes implied by Ghost and its relation to Stubbs's original — a transfigured, virile art versus the fusty, museum-interred stuff of academia — then cast some light on the rest of the show. Many of the works seem to hinge on the idea of sacred knowledge being ill-seen or ill-used, the "no man's land" of the exhibition title alluding to our precarious position midway between ignorance and enlightenment. We have a number of powerful spells, opines Wallinger, but very little idea what to do with them. Thus, the four monitors on the outer reaches of Prometheus (1999) show the artist (or, rather, his alter ego, Blind Faith) reciting Ariel' s song from The Tempest while strapped in an electric chair. Although this song, with its promise of "a sea-change/Into something rich and strange", is one of the most enchanting lyrics on the transformations wreaked by death, it appears wholly inappropriate to Blind Faith's predicament. He speaks the words in a distorted, barely fathomable monotone until the point when, with a blood-curdling shiver and screech that approximate the effect of the switch being flicked, the tape races back to the beginning and starts all over again. Conjoining Ariel and Old Sparky seems to smack of the deepest cynicism— or is the artist implying that the "something rich and strange" of Shakespeare's lyric is precisely this perpetual rebirth into human bondage? Either way, things are pretty bleak.

In the adjacent On an Operating Table (1998), it's the rich strangeness of St John's Gospel that seems incarcerated. Beneath a giant projection of an operating-theatre light, the famous opening passage from the Gospel is spelt out loud — "I.N.T.H.E.B.E.G.I.N.N.I.N.G.W.A.S.T.H.E.W.O.R.D ..." — as though by people who can't decipher text. The institutional rows of chairs and the domineering presence of the projected light (which reads as a huge, dilating eye) create the atmosphere of some fascist indoctrination session. If this is religious instruction, it's a class for either idiots or invalids. This association of religious texts with the primacy of sight is repeated in two further works—Seeing Is Believing (1997), in which the same passage from St John has been rearranged as an optician's chart, and Credo 1(2000), where a quotation from Ecclesiastes cannot easily be deciphered until viewed through special 3-D glasses. Correct your vision, the moral seems to be, and you might learn something.

Although the mirrored Tardis of Time and Relative Dimensions in Space (2001) brings the more up-to-date myth into play, the message is similar. The gleaming surfaces of Dr Who's police box show no way of entering, and return merely our own quizzical stares. Once again, transcendence is denied. In fact, it is only really sensed as a possibility in the show's two major video works. The first of these, When Parallel Lines Meet at Infinity (1998), may be an eternal journey through the netherworld of the Circle Line, but it is leavened by moments of almost pastoral beauty. The train slips from dark to light and light to dark, pierces blocks of downcast sunbeams and neglected patches of greenery. In comparison with Prometheus, this cyclical life is paradise.

Threshold to the Kingdom (2000), the second large-scale video and the exhibition's closing piece, gives somewhat more than these mere glimpses of escape. Having surreptitiously filmed the international arrivals gate at London City Airport, Wallinger has projected the images in ponderous slow motion to the accompaniment of Gregorio Allegri's Miserere. Now, this might be a cheap emotional trick, but the effect is undeniably moving — the swing doors are the pearly gates, the inscrutable security man is St Peter and the motley cast of self-conscious executives are souls arriving in heaven. On one level, it's all a fiction, but Wallinger also makes us see these people for exactly what they are. Embodied spirits travelling from place to place, they have undergone the same transformation as Stubbs's rearing horse.

"Mark Wallinger: no man's land" is at the 'Whitechapel Art Gallery, London El (020 7522 7878), until 13 January 2002

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  • APA 6th ed.: Denny, Ned (2001-12-03). Negative images. New Statesman p. 40.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Denny, Ned. "Negative images." New Statesman [add city] 2001-12-03, 40. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Denny, Ned. "Negative images." New Statesman, edition, sec., 2001-12-03
  • Turabian: Denny, Ned. "Negative images." New Statesman, 2001-12-03, section, 40 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Negative images | url= | work=New Statesman | pages=40 | date=2001-12-03 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=6 December 2023 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Negative images | url= | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=6 December 2023}}</ref>