Mark Wallinger has made the nation’s largest self-portrait, collected thousands of stones and numbered the bricks of a huge wall. TAMZIN LEWIS met an artist who thinks big
IT was a moment worthy of the question: “What’s on the end of the stick, Vic?” As Baltic made final preparations for its latest major show, one man wandered about with a long extendable pole mounted with a small plastic spoon.
His job? To ensure that 65,536 small pebbles were placed centrally on their individual black and white spaces on a giant chequerboard.
Artist Mark Wallinger seemed equally tickled by the attention to detail during the set-up of his apparently simple but incredibly mathematical exhibit.
The chequerboard is made up of a super-perfect number and, as Carol Vorderman would tell you, the binary form of 65,536 is 1000000000000000, which is the title of Mark’s work.
Mark, who confesses to scraping an A-level in maths, said: “It started off when I picked up some stones and placed them on all 64 squares of a chess board. I liked the sense of order and sense of inevitability; it was like cataloguing them and offering them up for scrutiny.”
He added: “It’s a bit illegal to take pebbles off beaches so I sourced these commercially. We sifted through to get stones of the right size. The only rule of the game was that they had to fit inside the square which is 2¼in.”
Mark describes 1000000000000000 as calming and there definitely is a contemplative feeling of serenity involved in this vast repetition of stones on squares.
“The notion of stones in their infinite variety interested me,” he said. “There is a notion of the sublime and also the terror of thinking too hard about the huge teeming multitude of phenomena in the world. It’s a mock-heroic attempt to make order which ultimately is futile.” 1000000000000000 is the most impressive of Mark’s site-specific works for Baltic but it is neatly complemented by The Other Wall, which is a wall of bricks all individually numbered with white chalk.
Mark said: “The stones and the bricks are rather banal, overlooked objects. They have a function and remain a bit unexamined. Bricks become part of a wall and we don’t want to mess our heads by thinking, ‘How many bricks are in that wall?’”
So did Mark number all the bricks himself? “No,” he replied. “I left samples of my handwriting and it took a team of people a week to number them. Each brick is personalised and they are placed randomly. I called it The Other Wall as it is this wall but it could be an infinite number of other combinations.”
He added: “We tried to match the colour with the Baltic bricks outside. I wanted to make this site specific as the whole show is about this space. So I wanted to suggest something about the previous life of the building, or have a wall which doesn’t feel imposed.”
Another work contemplating the nature of infinity is Heaven and Hell in Baltic’s stairwell. Mark put a mirror at the top and one at the bottom, so heaven is really a reflection of hell and vice versa. It’s a simple illusion, playing on the idea of either falling or climbing for all eternity, but it took an innovator like Wallinger to create it.
Also made for Baltic is a new Self Portrait, a giant letter I which you can’t miss on its Tyne-facing external wall. It’s part of a series he has produced on paper and as sculptures.
Mark said: “I have made them of all sizes. Some are puny and this one is stupidly big. It is Times New Roman which is often a default setting so it is big but also perfunctory.”
He added: “We write to people possibly more than anyone since the 19th Century and we are constantly trying to find the right tone. We are more aware of different fonts and the font we choose is an expression of personality.”
Back in the gallery, MARK 2010 is also a playful attempt at self-representation. It’s a slide-show of all the bricks he has written ‘Mark’ on in London.
Opposite is Construction Site, an 83-minute film of builders putting up a scaffolding tower on Folkestone beach and then deconstructing it: “I like watching scaffolders work and there is a skill and camaraderie about it.
“I wanted to make play with illusion and perspective. The structure they build is aligned with the horizon so briefly the workmen walk like giants on the horizon.”
Like the other works it’s a bit absurd, a reminder of Sisyphus (of Greek mythology), pushing his boulder to the top of a hill, only to have to do it all over again. And fitting perfectly into Wallinger’s world is the man with the stick, fiddling about with stones on an outsize chessboard.
Site by Mark Wallinger is at Baltic until October 14, www.balticmill.com