Think of England
Mark Wallinger’s proposal for a 50-metre-high sculpture of a white horse at Ebbsfleet, Kent, has captured the headlines. He talks to Martin Gayford about public art, national identity and bloodstock.
Martin Gayford, Sunday, 29th June 2008
Shut your eyes and think of England. If you take that advice, allegedly given to Victorian brides, what comes to mind? There are of course all manner of possibilities, some not at all nice (Heathrow’s Terminal 5, Northern Rock, a gridlocked motorway, Big Brother). But two candidates are these: the chalk faces of the Channel coast, and a white horse dominating the landscape. It says something for Mark Wallinger’s ability to connect contemporary art with history and national identity – and also, perhaps, his lack of fear of what Basil Fawlty called ‘the bleeding obvious’ – that he is currently planning public art projects involving both: the white cliffs and a gigantic white steed.
It is the second that recently made the headlines, under the confusing description of ‘The Angel of the South’. The Ebbsfleet Valley is a development zone occupying an unpromising stretch of ex-industrial territory sandwiched between the Thames Estuary and the outer London motorway system. In the future, this is planned to be a community of 10,000 houses – a medium-sized town – but before anyone moves there, in a move possibly unique in art history, it was decided to give this hypothetical place a sculptural emblem.
To be sited near the confluence of the Eurostar railway line and major roads, including the M25 motorway – a place that might evoke one of those dystopian images of modern Britain – the sculpture is to be 50 metres high and will cost £2m. It will be the most significant piece of public art to be commissioned in Britain since Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North at Gateshead 10 years ago (hence the misleading tag). Five artists are on the shortlist, including such famous figures as Richard Deacon and Rachel Whiteread, and the winner will be announced in September. All of them came up with worthy schemes, but only Mark Wallinger’s immediately hit the headlines, and it’s not hard to see why. His idea – a naturalistic white horse 170 feet high, standing in that landscape (Fig. 1) – is an absolutely mesmerising conflation of old England and new, of the semi-mythical, Tolkeinesque past and the six-lanes, all-crawling present. Of course, Wallinger’s horse isn’t selected yet – he hasn’t even worked out in detail how it would be made. But, despite the fact that the project is still so firmly in the conditional tense, you can just see it there, looming above the traffic. Once suggested, the work has an imaginative inevitability about it.
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