Size Matters

I have had mixed views about Mark Wallinger:

  • he clearly is a highly accomplished painter; his paintings of horses and his early paintings of his friends dressed as down and outs are technically amazing
  • the statue Ecce Homo which occupied the empty plinth in Trafalgar square is probably the best use of the space so far;  no,  more than that,  most of the plinth offerings have been notably uninspiring; his was genuinely moving. I would like it there permanently
  • the bear video was charming  I suppose


  • it was still a video of a man in a bear suit
  • I was against the Iraq war but was a reconstruction of the Brian Haw protest display really a work of art?  If so, was Brian Haw’s own camp a greater, more original work of art? Didn’t he deserve the Turner Prize. If not, why not? Discuss.
  • what about that racehorse “A real work of art”, wasn’t that just a stunt?
  • what about that huge white horse that is supposed to be set up at Ebbsfleet?

It’s probably the huge horse that has had me the most doubtful.  The photo constructions of the horse make it look just like one of those farmyard animals I had as a child though of course a lot bigger.

Generally I am uneasy about works of art which rely simply on being large. The shard is large, but not I feel good.  Jeff Kloons’ lobster is large – large for a lobster anyway. Paul McCathy’s dog turd was large by any standards. Sheer size can be a sign of hubris or lack of imagination. While I quite wanted to see it, (who wouldn’t want to see a whopping great horse once?) more than once, could it not get tiresome? Wouldn’t it in fact be a joke and jokes as public sculptures are likely to wear thin over time. I felt sympathy with those locals in Ebbsfleet who hadn’t felt they had been consulted and who were not sure they wanted the horse to become part of their everyday lives.

So with this kind of ambivalence I was pleased to have a chance to hear Wallinger talking to Alistair Sooke at the Hay Festival.  And I was completely won over. Wallinger is an amazingly engaging speaker. He comes across as self-deprecating, honest and all round good bloke.  Is it right to suddenly like an artist’s work because he is funny? Isn’t this gross discrimination against artists who lack charm?

I have always rather taken the view that works of art should stand on their own terms and should not need an artist’s blurb to explain it. Indeed often when artists write or talk about their works it can diminish them. Here I am sat in the rather soggy Big Tent in Hay thinking it all seemed to make perfect sense. The Brian Haw reconstruction kept that protest in the public mind after the real thing had been removed from in front of parliament. Even the real racehorse didn’t seem so ridiculous from a man who is clearly passionate about horses, and who used the suffragette colours,  green violet and white remembering when Emily Wilding Davidson threw herself under the King’s horse running at the Derby.  Of course it was a stunt but why not? His account of wandering around an art gallery in Berlin dressed in a bear suit (but with bare feet) seemed completely reasonable and we heard how a second bear arrived at the gallery and was seen looking wistfully through the windows as if searching for its mate.

When he was commissioned to undertake the sculpture for the empty plinth he had been told that one of three sculptures would be chosen to be there permanently. Then the decision was made to have a series. So the Ecce Homo is  in storage somewhere – just in case they change there minds again. It had me thinking how many contemporary works of art are stuck away in the equivalent of the garage or loft.

Works which appeared divergent were actually united by strongly held political beliefs that has seen him get beaten up by the National front.  There is throughout that underlying humour – in the weekend of the Jubilee celebrations he describes himself as “a republican who has met the queen.” There is a refusal to cash in on winning formulae. “ I never wanted to run a small business – why keep making the same jug?” On Damien Hirst, “he was phenomenal to start with but is now succumbing to different levels of bling.

What about that 170ft horse? Was there perhaps a hint of embarrassment about its size? It was, he explained, a competition to create a landmark. It was deliberately unheroic; it was standing in the classic position for judging blood stock. He admitted it was unlikely ever to be built; the price had escalated . I almost felt sorry.

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