Grey Squares, White Stripes

(works by Mark Wallinger and Olafur Eliasson)

Prince Charles Cinema and Tate Modern, London

There have been glimpses of the primeaval across London recently. As in some science fiction movie, mysterious ruptures in the fabric of the contemporary and everyday have occurred and revealed traces of how things may have been at some earlier and more elemental period (or perhaps how things may yet be), when strange forces moved across the face of the earth.

‘The Lark Ascending’ is a work for cinema by Mark Wallinger which was shown in a one-off screening at the Prince Charles Cinema just off Leicester Square on a cool and wet January evening. For thirty-three minutes the packed audience sat in front of a screen that bore no image at all. At the start it was a rectangle of mute mid-grey projected light, and then, nearly imperceptibly, the tone shifted up through the grey -scale towards, if not white, at least whiter, to end at a luminous cold pearly luminescence, as if we were witness to a monochromatic dawn through a window in front of us. This incremental visual shift accompanied a soundtrack that started nearly sub-sonically. A series of low extended grunting noises caused the fittings in the cinema to rattle as well as being felt in ones ribs and bowels. This sound moved slowly up the scale of speed and pitch in a strange sonic evolution that traveled through brontosaurus farts to the love songs of melancholy tubas, through conversations between excited swannee whistles up to a sound that was clearly identifiable as birdsong. The audio was a recording of the song of a lark, originally of some four minutes in length, which had been digitally stretched to occupy the extended time, and shaped to follow a simple graph of pitch - from incredibly slow — and therefore low and grunty, - up to something pretty close to that which is found in the real world. Or which might be found in the real world— throughout the work I was mildly distracted by the question of whether I had ever actually even heard a lark singing despite a childhood spent grumpily accompanying my parents in muddy walks across various blasted bits of English field and moor. I decided that I was pretty certain that I had.

The piece divided the audience. Some were clearly bored — the couple behind me rudely started a loud whispered exchange about two people called Jane and Abdul, who I divined, in my involuntary evesdropping, were their lodgers — and others found it ridiculous: behind the couple with the lodgers was a woman who suddenly got the giggles rather loudly when the farting started and managed to maintain her slightly edgy hilarity until the dawn of the tubas. And indeed many of the sounds were comic, absurd and guaranteed to tickle the large bit of the nervous system that is forever eight years old. One or two people were offended in the classic modernist ‘Entracte’ manner…a couple of anemic cries of ‘rubbish!" were attempted during the slightly sticky Q and A session after the screening. Others declared themselves to be transformed and transfixed. I traveled across most of these responses, although perhaps not quite achieving entirely the transcendental claimed by a minority, but then neither did the rubbish response claim me. The work was tough, mutable, challenging, meditative, rewarding and, I thought, brave.

The usual take on Mark Wallinger is that his work used to be about politics — which in this case is a coded phrase for class as much as anything else - who is now moving across questions of personal and national identity, history, and sport into musings on belief and the spiritual. A bit bolshy, a bit blokey, a bit (William) Blakey. This is a caricature of a practice that is diverse intelligent and complex, but like most caricatures there’s an element of truth in it, and certainly "The Lark Ascending’ effortlessly prompted complex thoughts on the conflations of the natural and the mystical and the dark mysteries of the constructions of place history and identity and the sublime.

The Lark is a totemic English bird. For all I know it may also be a totemic French one, but for English speakers it is woven deep into folk traditions and from there into the poetic traditions of ‘high’ culture. Such constructions are of course global and deep: every culture has their atavistic animal mascots or totems: from the aboriginal cultures of Australia, the peoples of the Amazon, to Berlin being full of images of bears and Australia of the kangaroo kookaburra and echidna, SA the Magpie etc. Although not directly representing any society group nation or team (as far as I know) larks swarm through British folk music be they the obscurely ancient and rural songs gathered by Cecil Sharpe and the ethnologists of the English Folk Song Society in the early days of the last century or the achingly trendy faux folk productions of Alasdair Roberts who is the Brit-folk expression of a new wave readdressing traditional forms: Will Oldham/Bonny Prince Charlie and traditional Country, or the White Stripes and the Blues. Musicians who are working using languages drawn from traditions that have until now seen to be definitely removed or so separate as to be nearly unrecuperable into the everyday and impossible to use in a compelling and vital manner.

The Lark is invoked in high culture as well. George Meredith wrote his poem ‘The Lark Ascending’ in 1895 and this work and title inspired the work by Vaughan Williams, and which Wallinger's project directly references. This orchestral piece was written at the start of world war one, but not performed until after that slaughter was finished and is an evocative and elegiac sound poem evoking the bird ascending the empyrean blue. It is one of those pieces of classical music that has become forever associated in the public mind with nature, land and beauty and is much loved by tourist boards and film makers. In all these expressions the bird, or the song, (or both), becomes symbolic of ‘the land’ and of a relationship to it, some perfect construction of fields, rolling dales and hidden churches, of a locality and society and a time, that hovers forever on the edge of loss. Or beyond that edge, and becomes conflated with nostalgia and loss. As Meredith writes in the poem ‘The Lark Arising’ "He is the hills, the human line / The meadows green, the fallows brown,/ The dreams of labour in the town.". In the poem the lark also echoes the presence of God in nature : "The singing till his heaven fills/ it is love of earth that he instills" and certainly Wallinger’s digital lark triggered thoughts - and discussion — which turned to the ineffable, the sublime and even the divine. These combined with the eschatological narratives of minimalism to suffuse the blank grey square with complex ghostly narratives and presences.

At Tate Modern, 'The Weather Project’ by Olafur Eliasson has been packing the punters in. This work is installed in the Gallery’s cathedral like main hall. It’s so large that previous artists have struggled with the space as it dwarfs anything, no matter how large, that is put into it. Anish Kapoor installed a work that looked like an alien ear-trumpet (Marsayas) which was so vast that it stopped looking real and instead took on the quality of a special effect from a movie. The Weather Project runs with this logic and has dematerialized the work more or less entirely into effect. The artist has mirrored the ceiling, and below this has suspended a large transparent semi-circle screen which is lit from behind by a large bank of very bright mono-wavelength lights. The bright semi-circular yellow glow is reflected and completed by the mirrored ceiling into a circular sun that hovers in (double height space) and radiates almost balefully through the thick generated mist and fog that the artist has filled the space with, making the light palpable. It has now been running for several months and people have started behaving in a strange way in this vast work. They lie on the floor in groups and clusters staring at themselves as distant constellations in the reflective ceiling. They become meditative, spending long hours there, and it has been rumoured that the Tate is becoming concerned by new age cults meeting there, possibly with the intention of holding strange rituals. 'The Weather Project' is self-consciously ersatz. It is designed so that you can wander behind the plane of the ‘sun’ and see the banks of suspended lights, look behind stage to see the wires and scaffolding of this theatrical event. Despite this revealing of the mechanism the work generates a sensation within the same chemical family as the sublime, and has generated an audience that is willing to become spaced out. Interestingly when the media has spoken of the work there was a notable tendency to preface the artist’s name with the fact that he is from Iceland (whilst in fact it would be as accurate as to say from Berlin) as if this gives him some special access to the realms of nature, some Wordsworthian or Roussea-ian elemental contact with the forces that lie in the icy wastes. A direct line into the mystic. No matter how artificial and visible the means of production the work still seems to trigger essentialist reactions. Reactions which, given the histories of mystical relationships with land in the 20th century and their bloody expressions can only make one careful and hesitant.

Both pieces are notable for the ways they address the representation of the ‘natural’ in ways uninflected by post-structural or postcolonial theory and from there, they move into questions of identity and the sublime. For me one of these works achieves this in a wiry, interesting, critical and resonant way whilst the other slips into hippy hyperbole, but both are fascinating not only for their intentions but for what they reveal about what a contemporary audience may desire. During the Q and A session for ‘The Lark Ascending’ the interlocutor said, slightly plaintively, that ‘we hear so much about the return to the sublime….is there such a return?’ and Mark Wallinger said that maybe there was , maybe there wasn’t, but for him there was certainly a stripping away of irony. Which I understood as indicating a willingness to open himself to the possibilities of such concepts. This lessening of the ironic seems to have an amplifier effect in the circuits between artist and viewer, and we can feel an inchoate yearning, on the parts of both producer and viewer, that the artwork should some-how do ‘more’ than artwork has done for a while. For some this desire can be simply a reactionary dissatisfaction with what art seems to have been doing for the last couple of decades, part of it is, as John Baldessari said a few years back ‘Beauty rearing its ugly head’. But it is equally certain that it reflects a dissatisfaction at a lack of, for want of a better word ‘ambition’ in what much contemporary art has allowed itself to address, preferring rather to address its own condition or make weak gestures towards popular culture.The mirror twin to this emerging concern with matters natural, ineffable and possibly spiritual is the stuttering awkward renaissance of ‘political work’ — documentaries of Turkish Gastarbeiters and similar are enjoying a currency not seen since the early seventies — that is happening all around us.

Both ‘The Lark Ascending' and 'The Weather Project' are knowingly artificial: one using the mechanisms of digital cinema, the other of son et lumier and Theater and they do both have a sort of science fiction feel attached to them, bringing to mind movies such as John Carpenter's 'Dark Star' where a remnant of the earth is being technologically maintained in deep space: some sort of ark. Despite the science fiction both works also manifest an engagement with ‘the real’ and ‘nature’ in ways very different to recent thinking and expression, which has foregrounded the inverted commas around them. There are parallels with the bands and musicians mentioned earlier: The White Stripes, the Black Keys, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Alistaire Roberts et al, where forms, languages and concerns are being animated in ways that would have seemed impossible half a decade back. And even though there is no way that The White Stripes can move through or express the worlds of Charlie Patton or Muddy Waters - removed as they are by time and culture - the works also refuse pastiche and presume the possibility of an un-ironic engagement with meaning. Although such work may initially seem to be returns to earlier expressions of cultural engagement, circumstances now are so changed that the outcomes are going to be specific and unique to this time. The sublime and other such concepts are being evoked in a context where the religious drive is either inchoate or fundamentalist; Ideas of the natural world and nature are being explored when that world is contingent, threatened and in flux; and political effect is aspired to without Marx or a working alternative to capitalism operating anywhere on the globe and where mass protest is without effect. These contexts are deeply problematic for these new expressions and engagements but they are also the conditions that make them deeply necessary.

Richard Grayson 2004