When did you decide you wanted to become an artist?
As far back as I can remember in a way. I’ve always wanted to be an artist, to be honest. Like all kids I drew the whole time but I just loved art and wanted to find out more and more. I had a passion and drive from when I was very young. From school I then did a foundation course, a degree course at Chelsea and then an MA at Goldsmiths.
You’ve had very prestigious commissions and accolades throughout your career; The Turner Prize, The British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and The Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar square. Does any of it change your approach to making art?
I was first nominated in 1997, and so to be nominated again the year I won was something I never actually expected — that doesn’t happen very often at all. At that point I think I was probably the oldest person to receive that award. Of course it’s very nice to be recognised for your work, but ultimately it’s about reaching the widest audience possible.
You were chosen to represent Britain in Venice. What was that pressure like? Is it something you were nervous about or did you know exactly how you were going to outline your project?
It is a certain amount of pressure but it does focus the mind, so it’s an incredibly interesting and rewarding challenge. I think those things outweigh the fear of getting it wrong! Ecce Homo was probably where I felt the most exposed and vulnerable. Originally, the idea was that one of the first of the three sculptures on the plinth would be become a permanent fixture in the square. The project evolved and shifted after that to become a rolling commission, but that was my intention in making Ecce Homo.
Perhaps the most public spot for a piece of public art.
Exactly. The idea came to me very immediately. Sometimes they just come all of a rush. I was confident about what I was making, but by the same token, you don’t know what kind of reception you’re going to get.
Are people more opinionated about public sculpture than artworks confined to a gallery?
I think it’s important that we leave a legacy of public artworks. I think we’ve been a bit diffident about that as a country since the war. Creating something in the public realm sets up a series of new challenges and I do enjoy working in that context.
That line of thought leads nicely on to State Britain. You were nominated and won the Turner prize for it in 2007, and the sentiment of that work seems as relevant today as it was then. Did politics drive you to make that, or was it more about being a portrait of an individual?
It was all of those things. I’d been photographing Brian Haw’s protest and got to meet him and I was incensed by the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act of 2005 which curtailed freedom of speech and protests within a one kilometre zone around parliament. And everyone seemed rather quiescent and complacent about this loss of rights. I felt the law was trying to get rid of the embarrassment that Brian Haw represented to the government. At the same time, I was approached by Tate about producing a piece of work for the Duveen galleries.
I was a passionate supporter of Brian. There was the huge protest before the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and then everyone just melted away really. There were still troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and quite inadequately equipped as it turned out as well. People were dismissive of him and his protests, largely because they didn’t bother to cross the road to see what he had to say, and it was just the most astonishing document. It was clear that the clock was ticking on Brian’s protest and bizarrely, the very night after I proposed the idea to the Tate, 78 police descended to take everything from him, bar one two-and-a-half-metre board, away from the square. It then became something that people still needed to see, that was denied them. And so there seemed to be an imperative to make that work.
I suppose I am obsessed with viewpoints, perspective, illusions — and taking something and literally turning it upside down
I was approached to make something about Magna Carta, (realised in 2018 as Writ in Water at Runnymede) the document that marked the beginning of people’s rights, and those things have to be preserved and fought for. We don't have a written constitution, we might think certain things are a birth right, but in actual fact we have to learn them anew and defend them.
Is your recent work The World Turned Upside Down at LSE a comment on society today?
The title comes from a ballad from the time of the English Civil War and the title of the definitive history by Christopher Hill, and more recently a Leon Rosselson song that Billy Brag covered. Historically it links back to all these many things. I suppose I am obsessed with viewpoints, perspective, illusions — and taking something and literally turning it upside down. Obviously, we know the Mercator projection on an oblong map is a bizarre abstraction of the world. Apart from stretching things at the poles, it diminishes the size of Africa. This globe restores Africa to its full size.
It's interesting you touched on perspective and illusions as I wanted to ask you about one of your most famous works, Ghost. You used George Stubbs’ Whistlejacket to make the work. What is it about that painting that made you want to reinterpret it?
It is an iconic image that still seems incredibly radical: the blank background, the realism of the horse, and then there all the stories and myths around it suggesting it was supposed to be for another painter to paint George III on to it at a later stage – which I’m not sure I really buy in to.
The horse rearing like that you can trace back to Velázquez portraits and Rubens paintings that depict the monarch on the horse, so this seems radical in that the vehicle is the subject rather than a King. Stubbs has cleansed all of this in the work; it gets rid of all the paraphernalia that tend to date things.
At one point I was thinking of trying to paint a white horse version of Whistlejacket, and in pursuing this I asked a friend to create a negative of this image, so it developed from there, and then I added the narwhal horn.
Let’s talk about your process… Do you spend a lot of time researching, or are you more interested in being hands-on in the studio to explore new ideas?
I go to the studio pretty much everyday - I’ve generally got a few different projects pending. There isn’t a routine in terms of process, per se. I don’t have the sort of practice where I sit down in front of a canvas and get on with it. Sometimes I wish I did! But for me, different media represent different opportunities. I keep notebooks and I’ve learned to be patient. I will have half-ideas that sit around and wait and hope for the other half to arrive. With public projects I tend to have a very instinctive reaction to a certain place. I find the hook and then I work in quite an immediate way to keep that impetus going so it is there for the viewer.
Is there anything you working on at the moment that you can share with us?
A few things, in fact… I’ve just opened an exhibition in Savannah, Georgia, and recently I wrote an essay on the painter Michael Simpson, that’s going to be in a book coming out in November after his exhibition at Blain|Southern. And of course, I’m speaking at the Chatsworth Art Festival next week – it’s a great honour to be asked so I’m really looking forward to my conversation with Beth Bate.
Mark Wallinger will be speaking at Chatsworth Arts Festival on Sunday 22 September 2019 alongside John Currin, Rachel Feinstein, Jarvis Cocker, Tom Dixon, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Michael Landy, Margo Selby, Antony Micallef and Aardman Animations, among many others. The festival takes place at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, Friday 20 - Sunday 22 September. Book tickets and see the full line-up here.
Sotheby's is a proud sponsor of the Chatsworth Arts Festival