In our era of shows curated with an exhaustive, almost claustrophobic, focus on a single artist or art movement, Mark Wallinger’s show The Russian Linesman at Leeds Art Gallery is a rare beast. Touring after a stint at the Hayward in London, the show takes in sculpture, painting, drawing and video art, and ranges in time from Ancient Greece to 2008, pausing at everything from the Renaissance to Futurism along the way.
The exhibition is subtitled ‘Frontiers, Borders and Thresholds’, and every exhibit bears some relation to this idea of liminality. Object after object is never quite what it seems or impossible to categorise. It’s is as if Wallinger is determined to make the viewer realise that the liminal and the ambiguous are where excitement and interest lay. Even the Russian linesman of the title isn’t fixed: it refers to the linesman from the 1966 World Cup Final who controversially awarded England a goal when the ball may not have crossed the line (meaning the goal will forever be contested and never accepted as definite); but the linesman was not, in fact, Russian, hailing originally from Azerbaijan, where the national football stadium is named after him.
The exhibition is set out over three rooms of the gallery, beginning with Wallinger’s own Time and Relative Dimensions in Space, a TARDIS made from reflective stainless steel and positioned so that it appears to be simultaneously present and disappearing. Although this is impressive, the highlight in terms of sculpture is Bertelli’s Futurist bust of Mussolini that gives a continuous profile of Il Duce from whichever position you look at it, perfectly reflecting the futurist love of movement and the machine age. Another highlight in this room is an X-radioscope of Titian’s Diana and Actaeon that shows the numerous changes he made before the finished version that now hangs in the National Gallery. The position of both bow and hounds have been changed so many times that they seem to melt into a blur of light that captures the moment of metamorphosis. Another great work are four photos of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake and Keats’ life masks. Hanging white against a black background, they are like faces that float in and out of death.
The second room of the exhibition didn’t excite me quite as much. A major focus is on stereoscopic photography, which forces the viewer to queue to peer through eyeholes in box after box, always aware that someone’s waiting in line beside them. Some of the works here, such as the trompe l’oeil crucifix and Edward Muybridge’s photos of human movement may be interesting technically and reflect Wallinger’s own obsessions, but they don’t hold the eye for particularly long. And even as a firm Bruce Nauman fan, I found the film Revolving Upside Down strangely disappointing. Wallinger seems to have chosen it because in the film Nauman looks like he’s standing on the ceiling, but so much of his other work, with its constantly frustrated search flawless repetition , would have tied in with the theme equally as well, but would probably have been more interesting for the viewer at the same time.
However, while this choice of video art may be slightly disappointing, the two pieces of video art that form the third room are mesmeric and haunting. One is Wallinger’s own work, Threshold to the Kingdom, a slow motion video of people arriving at London City airport that is combined with Allegri’s setting of Psalm 51. The otherwork is Amie Siegel’s Berlin Remake, where, in a series of diptychs, she juxtaposes footage from communist state films with her own frame-by-frame remakes in the same locations. Thus on one screen we see people walking down streets whose buildings are bombed out shells, while on the other screen people walk past new tower blocks, seemingly oblivious to the part that history has played in this location.
These two video works are simple in concept, but both profoundly moving and challenging. It’s definitely worth devoting the time necessary (approximately 15 minutes) to watch both of them in their entirety: sitting there in the darkness, the soundtrack from one work occasionally leeching in from the adjacent screening area, there is a curious peacefulness that could never be expected in the heart of Leeds. Yet that peacefulness is undercut by a renewed awareness of the transitory nature of history and of our existence within it. Wallinger himself says that death is ‘the unspoken border that keeps rising to the surface’ in this exhibition, and these two artworks serve to underline that as much as the masks of the dead poets and the flayed body of a smuggler that features elsewhere.
As a Bradfordian who’s developed a great affection for all things Mancunian while studying here, I’m usually doubly loath to recommend that anyone visit Leeds. But if you have any spare time in the next month, it really is worth making a visit to this exhibition (the only other place it’s touring to is Swansea). By turns challenging and fascinating, it’s an exhibition that makes you see the world as a place of paradox and ambiguity and of constantly revivifying energies.