Stalled at the Gate

Mark Wallinger's glorious history of unrealized public-art projects

Model of Mark Wallinger’s towering public sculpture The White Horse, proposed for Ebbsfleet, England. Anthony Reynolds Gallery in London is selling the model in an edition of 30 to help fund the faltering project.


Sitting in his London studio among remnants of past projects—— angling globes, a plinth, a crib——British artist Mark Wallinger chuckles ruefully when he says, “There’s a glorious history of unbuilt things, isn’t there?” The topic arises because his most grandiose project to date, a commission to erect a 170-foot-high white horse sculpture in Kent County, southeastern England, is on hold as efforts to raise the £12 million cost flag.

“It was ‘hooray,’ and then the credit crunch happened,” Wallinger says. Asked if he’s optimistic about whether The White Horse will reach the finishing post, he hesitates: “I’m a half-full, half-empty glass——it varies. I would hope it would, but I’m prepared for disappointment.”

Although he’s an accomplished painter, Wallinger prefers to work in mediums that invite viewer interaction, and his sometimes-outlandish art reflects political, religious, and historical preoccupations, often playing on double meanings. For Sleeper (2004), he spent ten nights in a bear suit prowling around Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie, and in 2007 he won the Turner Prize for State Britain, a re-creation of an antiwar campaigner’s 141-foot-long protest camp outside London’s Houses of Parliament.

However, cost and practicality have thwarted Wallinger before. A new monograph, written by Martin Herbert and published by Thames & Hudson, lists 15 unrealized projects, including a colossal and lurid balloon of a human heart that was to hover over the Kent town of Folkestone to commemorate the 17th-century physician William Harvey, a life-size biblical ark to perch atop a mountain in northern Britain, and a proposal to the Aspen Art Museum to scatter 822,000 coins (worth $15,000) into Colorado’s Roaring Fork River, in reference to Aspen’s wealth and mining history. “I wanted to see at what point people would get their feet wet,” he says of the latter concept.

Wallinger particularly regrets the rejection of his proposal for ten giant white spheres to map the gateways to London’s 2012 Olympics but says The White Horse “will probably top the list” of disappointments if it gets shelved. Making outdoor works in Britain is notoriously challenging. “I think it’s so compromised, doing public sculpture. It’s all that health and safety and not offending anybody,” notes fellow Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry. “It’s a nightmare to make it.”

Horse was the favorite of five short-listed designs in the 2007 competition for a monumental artwork in Ebbsfleet, Kent. Aside from symbolizing Britain’s long tradition of horse racing and fox hunting, equine images are etched in the public imagination, from centuries-old hillside chalk carvings of horse figures to George Stubbs’s paintings of noble mares and stallions.

Wallinger, a former racing aficionado who once bought a racehorse and called it A Real Work of Art, has produced an edition of 30 models of the white thoroughbred to raise money to “reenergize” the project. Ben Ruse, a director of the project, won’t reveal how much has been raised so far, but despite the economic climate he estimates that construction should begin by mid-2013. “Horse is a high-profile, worthwhile, worthy project,” says Ruse. “There’s nothing to say it can’t gallop forward confidently.” ——Elizabeth Fullerton

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