Selfhood has been the main, abiding theme of Mark Wallinger’s art in recent years. For his debut exhibition with Hauser & Wirth, spread across the gallery’s two neighboring London spaces, he gave the concept a psychoanalytic spin and elevated it into an overall curatorial scheme—starting with the “id Paintings” (2015), seventeen of which occupied virtually all of the first venue. In these enormous, abstract canvases, Wallinger made symmetrical patterns of smeary, swoopy dabs and dark, knuckled areas by applying black paint directly with both hands at once. The works’ dimensions, too, were a sort of personal gesture, their widths based on Wallinger’s arm span, their heights precisely double that, as if to incorporate some sort of Vitruvian Man–like metric. But rather than invoking science or rationality, the works are meant to embody primal, impulsive actions, an ambidextrous channeling of instinct and desire. The designs, with their vertical symmetry, appropriately bring to mind giant Rorschach blots; and, certainly, it is difficult not to give in to the play of fantasy, visualizing all sorts of macabre figures and faces within their depths.
The only other work in the first venue was a pair of small, overlapping photographs, titled—following the Freudian scheme—Ego. Shot by Wallinger on an iPhone, the images show his own hands posed to evoke the famous action of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam—the work serving as a statement of secular, solipsistic self-belief, an act of humanistic, not to mention hubristic, self-genesis. Superego (2016), meanwhile, exhibited in the second venue, is a sculpture consisting of a wedge-shaped form rotating atop a pole, recalling, for London audiences, the iconic revolving sign that marks New Scotland Yard, the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police. Wallinger’s version of this authoritarian symbol is mirror-plated, yet, situated above head height, it never captures one’s reflection. The point, perhaps, is to imply a sort of impossible demand for self-surveillance. But the fact that its interpretation relies so much on a niche reference makes the work seem rather tenuous, oddly whimsical and unmenacing.
The most effective pieces, by contrast, were those that seemed to have more inherent, self-contained meanings and that, perhaps not coincidentally, avoided the too-neat psychoanalytic conceit. Shadow Walker (2011) is a life-size video of the artist’s shadow as he navigates a busy London thoroughfare—the dark form appearing more persistent, more mesmerizingly substantial, than the legs of passersby that it fleetingly ripples across. Ever Since (2012), another life-size projection, depicts the beautiful frontage of an Edwardian barbershop. The only obviously moving element in the otherwise static vignette is the spinning barber’s pole above the door, its spiral stripes scrolling away continuously as if the footage were somehow endless. In fact, the video runs on the briefest of loops, the pole only turning exactly once. If you look closely, you can just make out a clock inside the shop perpetually repeating the same two seconds.
Our perception of time, of course, determines our sense of how we inhabit the world, and thus defines our notions of self. These connections culminated in the show in a final, wonderfully elegant work, Orrery (2016). An orrery is typically a clocklike mechanical model of the solar system. Wallinger’s version consists of four monitors playing looped footage of a tree in a traffic roundabout, filmed from a circling car, with each screen showing the tree during a different season. The tree is an oak, a classic symbol of Britishness, so there are connotations of national identity at play. The most profound sense one gets, though, when standing amid the circle of monitors, encompassed by the four orbiting views, watching the tree and the seasons mechanically turning, is of cycles within cycles of time—with humanity positioned at the all-seeing center, omniscient yet cosmically irrelevant.