Self-portrait as a pantomime horse

Mark Wallinger once declared his racehorse A Real Work of Art. Adrian Searle considers his pedigree
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The Independent Culture
Here's Mark Wallinger in the middle of a crowd making its way to a match at Wembley. Wember-ley! Wem-ber-lee! Wem-bly! Wehembleeagh! The excited throng surges towards the camera, but Wallinger just stands in the distance with a couple of mates, holding up a huge Union Jack banner, emblazoned with his own name. Mark Wallinger, a tribe of one. Wallinger has given a wall-sized photo of this action the schoolboy title Mark Wallinger, 31 Hayes Court, Camberwell New Road, London, England, Great Britain, Europe, the World, the Solar System, The Galaxy, The Universe.

Here he is again, in another photograph: whey-faced at the racecourse, wearing a jockey's silks and just a hint of lipstick, smiling benignly. Behind him, beyond the Epsom rail, a racehorse thunders by. Wallinger sports the jockey's colours he has registered at Tattersalls, the green, white and violet of the suffragette movement. Called Self Portrait as Emily Davison, the work is a homage to the suffragette who threw herself under the hoofs of King George V's horse during the 1913 Derby. Not all Wallinger's work is so solipsistic, although fragments of autobiography and family history, Wallinger's abiding passion for sport and his peculiarly English humour dominate his current exhibition, at the Ikon, Birmingham, which travels to the Serpentine Gallery in May.

From a dark recess at the back of the Ikon's lower gallery comes the sound of Tommy Cooper in full flood, going through an interminable hat- switching routine. But the performance is being played backwards and the TV monitor faces away from us, so the audience must watch Cooper's act in a mirror. Everything is back to front: when he puts a hat on, he's actually taking it off. Run in reverse, Cooper is still funny and his lugubrious chuckle and asides come out as a hiccuping, Germanic roar. Oddly, his timing seems utterly unaffected: maybe Cooper always did his act backwards. Regard a Mere Mad Rager (the title is a palindrome) functions, like much of Wallinger's work (and Cooper's), by means of such reversals, symmetrical oppositions and defaults.

Horse-racing, football, Tommy Cooper and schooldays in Chigwell are rarely the stuff of cutting-edge modern art, but Wallinger takes his cues as much from these as he does from Duchamp, George Stubbs or deconstructionist theory. Yet, according to Jon Thompson, who wrote the show's catalogue, Wallinger is an intellectual, whose work delves into matters of class, nationality, history, politics and gender in order to analyse fundamental questions of individual and collective identity. One must add an important proviso to this - encounters with the artist are more likely to leave the impression that he is a joker and a storyteller and a bit of a sports bore. He once got so excited following a race commentary he had to take himself off to the local hospital, suffering from heart palpitations.

Wallinger is a contrary artist: a maker of assemblages and videos, a punter and a punster, a fixer, a kind of conceptualist and a painter of academic portraits of down-and-outs and horses. He bought a racehorse himself in 1993, and called it A Real Work of Art, but it spent more time with the vet than on the gallops, and Wallinger was forced to sell his non-running, whinnying "ready-made" to a German collector. Intellectual he may be, but Wallinger is also an Essex Man of Our Times. Thompson's analysis of Wallinger's work as a social critique dissects the humour out of existence, and begins to look at times like an exercise in art- theoretical product placement.

Despite the impression given by the catalogue, the exhibition is less a retrospective of the 36-year-old artist's work than a replay of Wallinger's edited highlights, including some of the finest moments from the past decade's production: Natural Selection, some feather-perfect studies of birds painted on car-tyre rubber, with real feathers and road-tar mashed into the tread where the final study should be; and School, a series of blackboards with perspective drawings of rooms from Wallinger's old secondary school chalked on to them, a glowing light bulb inset into each board where the vanishing point of the drawing should be. The arid perspectival order is intended to serve as a model of the rigid hierarchical power of the institution and the aspirations it inculcates and represents.

Wallinger has also hiked a couple of works, which quote 18th-century English painting, up the hill to Birmingham Art Gallery, where they are insinuated among the genuine Hogarths and Constables. Wallinger's tacky version of a George Stubbs, and a heritage-industry landscape replete with souvenir cart-horse and references to Harold Wilson and the Beatles, are disconcerting, jarring and funny in this context, but the aspirations of these early paintings cannot match the technical felicities of their forebears. What might, in the studio, have looked like iconoclastic parody, suffers in the comparison with the genuine article.

Wallinger's recent paintings of racehorses, however, hit the right note. His series of life-sized paintings of stallions, generically titled Race, Class, Sex, take as their subject the living descendants of the first Arabian stallion to be imported into this country in the 18th century (all now owned by Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai). The horses have been faithfully rendered, down to the last fetlock, and are derived from the stilted side- view photographs in Weatherby's yearly Stallions almanac. Like Stubbs's Whistlejacket, Wallinger's horses are all silhouetted against a blank ground. The Half-Brothers are all diptychs - Wallinger has joined the front half of Exit to Nowhere to the back half of Machiavellian, the head- end of Diesis to the rear-end of Keen, pointing up the careful mix'n'match breeding programmes of the racing world.

Class and breeding, of course, matter as much for the human members of the racing fraternity as for the horses themselves, and for Wallinger the turf is a microcosm of society. He has various projects under way - videos of horses copulating at stud and multi-screen footage of the rigidly hierarchical tiering, the separation of nobs from hoi polloi, in the different racehorse enclosures. Where in all this does Wallinger belong? He's a one-time owner of horseflesh, a punter, a celebrant and a critic of the sport. He's a socialist who likes a flutter, and, of course, he's an artist and an intellectual. It's a weird mix: one of his recent works is a ribald sculpture of a pantomime horse - it could well be a self-portrait.

n At the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, to 1 April (0121-643 0708)

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