Over the past eight years, Mark Wallinger has been increasingly concerned with the unspoken conditions that shape our viewing of film and video. In two new works – Via Dolorosa and Third Generation (Ascher Family) – Wallinger brings this concern to the fore with two other favourite themes: representation of the social and individual and the construction of social identities through the framework of history.
In Third Generation we are invited to view a home movie made by the Ascher’s, a wealthy Jewish family who left Berlin for Palestine in 1938, at two removes from the original museum footage. Anyone can go and see the film at first hand – it is on permanent display in the Jewish museum in Berlin – yet Wallinger is presenting us with a meditation upon a mediation. Placing a video camera a few yards back from the film, Wallinger records the movements and responses of the museum’s visitors to the footage, as well as the amount of time they choose to spend watching the film (usually a few seconds). By doing so, the viewer is as subject to inscription in history as the figures in the film.
What Wallinger seems to be suggesting here is manifold; that mediation, by film or otherwise, can never actually pertain to neutrality and thus even the artist is implicated through his motives. Brought to our attention is the formal contrast between the coarse black and white film and the relative vibrancy of the surrounding exhibition. What strikes us is that neither aspect of the footage has any greater accession to history than the other; both share a performative element which allows them to be present at varying degrees of immediacy, a point emphasised by the descending framing device that Wallinger employs. All of this is then replayed and re-photographed in a subtly lit ‘studio’ environment before being presented to us, the eventual recipient.
Wallinger is presenting and re-presenting history as something mutable, as something troubling, if not traumatic. The choice of subject matter for the film, and its subsequent re-framing in the third-person, raises questions about what kind of access we have to history, about how we represent and do justice to a subject matter that remains elusive to adequate monument, without it turning into an impermeable monad. Wallinger’s strategy then is one of allocating history a fictive space, where it is as much subject to individual narratives as it is to grand narratives, both being complicated by the multiplicity of interests at play.
This degree of minimal intervention is also characteristic of the second work in the show, Via Dolorosa. The piece consists of a projection, on the gallery’s largest wall, of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 film Jesus of Nazareth. Wallinger has modified the film by positioning a black rectangular void over the greater percentage of the screen. This, combined with the fact that the dialogue has been left in Italian, has the effect of stimulating our curiosity as to what is actually occurring in the film. Here, Wallinger is evoking his earlier work which investigated, through the fictitious persona of a blind man, the privileged role sight plays not simply in the ‘visual’ arts but in locating ourselves socially in the world that surrounds us. In attempting to view the film conventionally, one soon finds that the decision as to the movement of our gaze is determined for us, providing for a slightly vertiginous experience.
In utilizing the concept of the void in this manner, Wallinger is covering ground previously occupied by figures such as Derek Jarman or Ad Reinhardt, artists very much interested in the conventions of the medium they were working with. Indeed, the immediacy of presentation that the film grants is something that the written or spoken word cannot achieve; it is something specific to the conventions of film and thus subtly addresses the kind of modernist reductivism that was such a concern of post-war abstract painting.
It is this very problem that Wallinger is explicitly addressing: that before we can approach subjects as grand as religion or the Holocaust we must first establish our position in relation to our understanding of them, as things which exists as more than mediation. The unpacking of history reveals much of the phenomena of seeing and memory, of the subjectivity of all our experience regarding history.
Copyright 2004 Oliver Shone