According to a mutual friend, Mark Wallinger is an insomniac. The 2004 performance Sleeper, for which the British artist donned a bear costume and spent nights wandering around Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie, shuffled many layers of symbolism—the bear is Berlin’s mascot, a sleeper a dormant Cold War agent or terrorist—but it was also a comic metaphor for the trials of sleeplessness.
At Wallinger’s recent show in Berlin (all works 2010), the walls were hung haphazardly with pixelated cell-phone photographs of anonymous people sleeping on public transport (“The Unconscious”). The prints vary from 1 to over 6 feet on a side, and the chaotic display was in keeping with the fugitive quality of the subjects’ sleep. Strewn across the floor were 1,000 stones of different sizes (Steine), each numbered by hand with white marker, a labor—counting stones instead of sheep—which might have occupied many midnight hours. One could also count letters on wallpaper (WORD). Filling a freestanding wall, the letters comprise the entire contents of The Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1918, printed without spaces or punctuation between words. The proliferation of stones connects to the aggregate of pixels in the photographs and to the screen of letters, rendering literary culture as a typographical buzz on the retina, a sky full of stars. Wallinger sees the cosmos in a pebble, a letter, a pixel.
Insomnia can be a symptom of depression, and there is a nihilistic edge to these expansive gestures. The wonder in Wallinger’s intimations of the incommensurability of nature is framed by a taxonomical fervor that never loses the awareness of its own inadequacy. The snapshots of travelers are poised between empathetic humanism and the diminishment of individuals to abject urban flotsam. Numbers and pixels reduce stones and faces to ciphers representing our inability to assimilate the world. WORD never allows you to forget that it is your own intelligence that discerns poetic detail in the morass of letters.
Wallinger objectifies our disenchantment. The Magic of Things—a 5-minute video shown on a monitor—collages clunky supernatural passages from the 1970s television series “Bewitched”: a succession of floating teacups and self-packing suitcases. According to Mark (100 chairs) marshals into rows 100 unique secondhand chairs, each labeled “MARK” in felt-tip pen, negating their individuality while claiming it for the artist. A string connects each chair to a hook mounted high on the facing wall, like a line in a perspectival diagram. The installation implies an eye that is also an “I,” observing all the little “I”s of the chairs. Here again, an axis is set up between quotidian enumeration and the transcending of it, an axis that the clumsy symbolism of the installation already undermines, like a puppet show in which all the strings are on view. Wallinger suggests absolutes, only to repeatedly bounce us back to our limited, mundane selves, helpless, lost in sleep.
Photo: View of Mark Wallinger’s installation According to Mark (100 chairs), 2010, chairs, black marker and white string; at carlier | gebauer.