The Turner Prize is a random honour. It is handed out, more or less unpredictably, to artists good, bad and indifferent. But this year, by a stroke of enormous luck, it has got itself awarded to a really good artist: Mark Wallinger. Just in time, too. In a couple of years he would have been too old to qualify.
Born in 1959, Wallinger is a conceptual artist working across media, making paintings, films, sculptures, installations, performances. Over the past two decades he has produced an extraordinarily rich and inventive body of work much too various to summarise.
Visitors to the Turner Prize show at Tate Liverpool have seen him in the costume of a brown bear, Berlin's symbol, filmed keeping a mysterious all-night vigil in the giant glass foyer of the Neue Nationalgalerie. In 1999 he was the first artist to put a work on the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square Ecce Homo, a life-size figure of Jesus, standing looking dwarfed and lost in the modern public realm. Earlier this year, he arranged for an exact reconstruction of the dismantled anti-war protest encampment in Parliament Square to rematerialise in Tate Britain.
Wallinger's themes are political and religious. His underlying concern is with belief and disbelief. Inspired by Duchamp and Joyce, his work is clever, funny and piercing. It is full of verbal and visual devices: puns, anagrams, palindromes, mirror-imaging, reverse-motion, optical illusions, costumes and disguises, and disappearing acts.
He deals in leaps of faith, in situations where, with a small and perfectly visible alteration, something can be changed into something utterly different as in his beautiful film from 2000, Threshold to the Kingdom, in which everyday travellers arriving at City Airport in London are transformed (just add music and slo-mo) into souls arriving in heaven.