The Russian Linesman
18 February–4 May, The Hayward Gallery, London
Mark Wallinger’s first major curatorial role has come at a good time, keeping his name in the headlights following the Turner Prize and successful Ebbsfleet bid, while offering a chance to show off his favourite things. He’s a canny choice for the Hayward’s ongoing artist/curator series; popular with the public, but politically critical enough to please insiders.
The Russian Linesman deals with the arbitrariness of boundaries, mostly geopolitical but also artistic, metaphysical or epistemological. The title itself uses a goalline metaphor, referring to a controversial decision made by the linesman in the 1966 World Cup final, which helped England win against West Germany and was later revealed to have a political motivation going back to the Battle of Stalingrad, when thousands of the linesman’s fellow Azerbaijanis were killed fighting for the USSR against Germany.
Wallinger is interested in how political tensions, festering in the historical subconscious, resurface at inopportune or absurd moments. A YouTube clip of a daily flag-lowering ceremony on the Pakistani/Indian border illustrates an example of how heavy political symbolism can be sublimated into Monty Pythonesque farce, all ludicrous hats and silly walks. Other works remind us that human progress can never fully eliminate the tragic irony of finding things out too late. An exquisitely detailed 1665 drawing of a flea provides a particularly poignant illustration. Robert Hooke invented the microscope that enabled him to produce the drawing, but sadly failed to recognise the organism as the cause of the Plague.
Wallinger seems to be drawn to the Freudian idea of the double or twin. Amie Siegel’s ‘Berlin Remake’, 2005, contrasts clips from East German films with remakes of the same scenes in contemporary Berlin. The result is a spot-the difference exercise that makes you feel guilty for obsessing over where the Wall once stood.
But then, all attempts to draw political lines, whether in Berlin, Jerusalem or Nicosia, look petty when viewed retrospectively. An NBC news clip documents the moments after Philippe Petit was arrested for sky-walking between the world’s most famous twins, the Twin Towers, on 7 August 1974. The camera circles vertiginously until we can just make out the faint line of the cable. We should be reminded of 9/11, yet it’s impossible not to feel amazement at this man’s daring mission that seems to defy all logic and fear.
There’s one work that you sense comes closest to what Wallinger wants to say about the fragility of the artist ego and the beauty of human endeavour forever shadowed by the inevitability of death. Jérôme Bel’s melancholy documentary of 2004 takes its title from the name of the work’s protagonist, the retiring ballerina, Véronique Doisneau. In front of an audience at the Paris Opera Ballet, Doisneau performs a solo grande finale to her short career. Her honesty and charm compels us to empathise with her unfulfilled desires, but also to share the pleasures of her favourite dances, which she demonstrates one last time.
Wallinger includes only a small handful of his own works, almost camouflaged among the selections. Yet his giant version of the Dr Who TARDIS, ‘Time and Relative Dimensions in Space’, 2001, reflects the rest of the show in its mirrored surface, subtly subsuming everything under Wallinger’s authority. It’s a clue to the success of The Russian Linesman; Wallinger has given us both a sketchbook like insight into his influences, while challenging us to reconsider the lines we draw in history and life.
Jennifer Thatcher is a writer and director of talks at the ICA, London