Mark Wallinger: Mane attraction

Breathing new life into traditional symbols is the hallmark of the artist whose giant white horse is destined to become the 'Angel of the South'
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It's interesting that Mark Wallinger once said he particularly likes the poetry of Keats and Shelley. It shows what an eclectic chap he is. In one sense, of course, we knew that. Wallinger is the man who has just won the contest to create Britain's largest piece of public art – dubbed the Angel of the South because it is supposed to do for the desolate Ebbsfleet area of Kent what Antony Gormley's Angel of the North did for the industrial wastelands of Tyneside. Giant pieces of art aren't Wallinger's usual thing, though he is such a wide-ranging artist – working for 20 years with paint, photography, sculpture, video, performance and installation – that it's hard to say what his usual thing is.

"Conceptual" is the word the critics use. But that doesn't really help, since it conjures up in the public mind Hirst's pickled shark, Ofili's elephant dung or Emin's sex-stained sheets and all manner of other invitations to red-top ridicule. Mark Wallinger's relationship with that crowd of Not So Young British Artists, with whom he shared the platform of the seminal Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997, has always been rather ambiguous.

Keats and Shelley underline that ambiguity, for they were part of the first wave of the Romantic movement which elevated originality above the notion of art as a growing tradition in which each generation stands on the shoulders of those who went before. Mark Wallinger is an artist who values tradition considerably more than most of his contemporaries – and his innovation is the more significant for it.

In one sense it is easy to see how he came to be lumped in with them. He was born in Chigwell in 1959 and studied at the Chelsea School of Art and then Goldsmiths College. Success came early. The entire contents of his 1985 Goldsmiths degree show were whisked into a London gallery. A few years later, his oil portraits of his friends masquerading as homeless people outside City institutions were snapped up by the leading collector of contemporary art, Charles Saatchi. There was an irony in the purchase, for Saatchi's advertising company, which had created the political campaigns on which Margaret Thatcher won power, stood for a politics that enraged Wallinger.

The class consciousness of his Essex childhood saw to that – and it did not desert him. His next significant work – also bought by Saatchi – was a series of majestic paintings of stallions from the stud of a foreign sheikh. He called them Race, Class and Sex (1992). It was "no accident", Wallinger said acidly, that the aristocracy is so interested in breeding.

The money allowed Wallinger himself to buy a racehorse which he named A Real Work of Art. Marcel Duchamp had said that re-framing an existing object could make it an art work. If Duchamp could do it with an object, Wallinger reckoned, he could do it with a horse. He dressed himself in racing colours of purple, white and green – the colours of the suffragettes – and took a photograph of himself as a female jockey. Self Portrait as Emily Davison was photographed in 1993 at the point on the Epsom course where the suffragette threw herself in front of the king's horse 80 years earlier.

The horse wasn't much of a racer. She was injured after her first outing. But the wheeze, along with his series of naturalistic paintings of hybrid horses, brought him a Turner Prize nomination in 1995. Like the horse, however, he didn't win. (Damien Hirst did.) But if Wallinger was capable of the usual Turner Prize shenanigans – and remains so, as he showed with his 2005 piece Sleeper, a 154-minute film of him wandering around a deserted German gallery disguised as a bear – he is clearly possessed of something more.

That was shown by the piece for which is now best known, a life-size sculpture of Christ which he called Ecce Homo (1999) which was shown temporarily on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square. The figure, naked apart from a loin cloth, with a crown of barbed wire around his head, hands bound behind his back, looked like a political prisoner from any era. His position, on the edge of the massive plinth, underscored his vulnerability. This Jesus, a man dwarfed by the public realm around him, stood there as the millennium turned to mark 2,000 years since Christ's birth. Critics and public loved it.

It was not an overtly religious work. This Jesus was a man not a god. But it demonstrated Wallinger's intuition for the deep potency of mythic symbol. It could be poignant, like Ecce Homo, or funny, like Mark Wallinger, 31, Hayes Court, Camberwell New Road, Camberwell, London, England, Great Britain, The World, The Solar System, The Galaxy, The Universe – an enormous photograph of Wallinger and his brother holding a huge Union Jack, featuring his own name, outside Wembley in 1994.

What Wallinger understands is the power of reinterpreting traditional symbols so they speak to his own time. He is against innovating for innovation's sake. He knows that some things haven't been done before because they aren't worth doing. But he has an uncanny eye for images that will resonate with something that lies buried deep in the public imagination. "I think art needs to engage the viewer," he has said, "and has to have a hook that isn't entirely cerebral."

He demonstrated that in his film Angel (1997) in which an everyman, dressed in black trousers, white shirt and dark glasses, recites the opening of the Gospel of St John – "in the beginning was the Word". But he spoke the verses backwards while walking to a standstill on the up escalator at the Angel Tube station, and then showing the film backwards on the side of the South Bank Centre. The familiar words sounded in a weird and unfamiliar way. It was mesmerising.

On Going Underground, the cover he designed for the London Underground map last year, he merged the roundel symbol of the Royal Air Force with the Tube's logo, conjuring echoes of Sixties mods and the Jam's eponymous 1980 hit. Symbols of national and metropolitan identity merged and breathed with contemporary meaning.

He did the same with the 19,240 beach pebbles he numbered and placed in a large square at Folkestone from which British troops left for the battlefields of France and Flanders in the First World War. That was the number of our troops killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the bloodiest day in British history.

There was something of the same approach in the work which won him the Turner Prize in 2007. State Britain was a recreation in Tate Britain of the anti-war protest staged in Parliament Square by Brian Haw which was confiscated by the police enforcing a 1km "exclusion zone" around Parliament. Wallinger painstakingly recreated Haw's 600-banner demonstration in Parliament Square as it had looked the day before the police took it away. And he gave it added piquancy by running a black tape through the Tate's galleries to show that the exclusion zone, measured literally, would bisect the gallery – and make half of his work of art theoretically illegal. It was much more than an assembly of detritus in the style of Everyone I Have Ever Been on an Anti-War Demo With. He had taken something ordinary and transmuted it into art.

Mark Wallinger is unafraid of being humorous and profound all at once. At the Oxford Museum of Natural History in 2000 he tried something to capture the imagination of children and express something about what a museum is for. He plonked a replica of Doctor Who's Tardis on the lawn outside, and hid another inside, in a location which meant the two could never be seen at the same time. It played with the ideal of the museum as a repository of time and memory – at once a time machine, covering millennia of the earth's past, and also something far larger than its physical limits could contain.

The following year he was asked to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale. Again part of his entry was a Tardis built from polished stainless steel which reflected the audience back at themselves, creating an extra dimension through the mirrored surface.

He is at it again with the gigantic White Horse he has come up with for the Ebbsfleet site where the Eurostar train comes from France. There are white horses cut into the chalk of hills throughout Britain, many there since Bronze Age times. They are a symbol of national identity which springs from our very soil. Wallinger's White Horse will echo that. Like Gormley's northern Angel it plugs into the English psyche at a deep emotional level. For the 60 million people a year who will pass the statue it will momentarily lift the thin veil that separates our quotidian grind from the world of imagination beyond.

A life in brief

Born: 1959, Chigwell, Essex.

Early life: Brought up and educated in Essex. His father, a fishmonger, ignited his interest in the arts, and he went on to do a degree at the Chelsea School of Art and an MA at Goldsmiths College.

Career: Started exhibiting in the 1980s and featured in two of the most influential shows of the 1990s: Saatchi's Young British Artists II and Sensation. In 2000 his Ecce Homo occupied Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth and a retrospective of his work, Credo, was exhibited at Tate Liverpool. Nominated for the Turner Prize twice, he won in 2007 for State Britain. It has just been announced that his design of a giant white horse is the winner of the Angel of the South project.

He says: "Conceptual artist" is a slightly dreary term, isn't it? I think art needs to engage the viewer and has to have a hook that isn't entirely cerebral. It has to give you some emotion. I like funny."

They say: "This is an artist whose mind and vision are complex, who is unafraid to bring us face to face with artwork which is both challenging and takes account of the great artistic tradition." Roy Strong, art historian

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