The Russian Linesman, curated by Mark Wallinger on tour in the UK
16 February – 4 May 2009
The Hayward Gallery, London
16 May – 28 June 2009
Leeds Art Gallery
18 July – 20 September
Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea
At a first glance, The Russian Linesman, a group exhibition curated by Mark Wallinger seems to be an eclectic choice of art and artefacts, like a contemporary cabinet of curiosities. Such a comparison, however, obscures this exhibition’s genuine qualities. The Russian Linesman, in fact, is exemplary of what happens when an artist intelligently uses curating as part of his or her artistic practice. This exhibition is a work in itself in its use of appropriation, revealing extraordinary acumen in its choices and juxtapositions. The show’s sub-title; Frontiers, Borders and Thresholds is the touchstone for the exhibition and Wallinger’s selection is a shifting focus between taxonomies of kind, meeting points between nations, religion and ideologies (that are inevitably sites of conflict and watersheds in history).
The film of Philippe Petit’s audacious tightrope walk between the summits of New York’s Twin Towers in 1974 is poignant from the point of view of our present; Petit carefully traverses a point in space that events have since effaced. It seems like a dream. Wallinger’s text in the book accompanying this exhibition unfolds this moment as a succession of perceptions, impressions and references. Through Beuys’ naming the towers in 1975 Cosmos and Damien (who were the Syrian twin brothers who practiced the art of healing) to Wallinger’s realisation that the image of the cricket wicket painted on walls by Indian, Pakistani and West Indian New Yorkers is a graphic depiction of the twin towers.
Elsewhere Dublin is the place where Leopold Bloom responds to an advertisement to purchase “sandy tracts from the Turkish government” at an address in Berlin where the Palestine Development Company was based. Until 1918 Palestine was in the Turkish Empire. The shifting lines in Wallinger’s text resonate in the exhibition’s objects. A painting by C.R.W. Nevinson, The Road from Arras to Bapaume, 1917 depicts a razor-edge straight road cut through a landscape to the horizon. The landscape is barren, like a desert. Military transport and soldiers file to and from the vanishing point, through Europe’s killing fields. Elsewhere we find lines between insect and human, in drawings by Hooke and Stubbs, and the interface of skin in the ‘Dying Gaul’, an anonymous 19th century copy of an antique sculpture and a later version of the same pose as an écorché.
Whereas Wallinger could be accused of effecting a mere mix and match of themes, what is exciting about this exhibition are the palpable relationships produced between objects, in the way, for instance, the show moves from Renato Bertilli’s Profilio Continuo (Head of Mussolini), to a set of Eadweard Muybridge images to a Klein bottle. The spacing and switching between modes of viewing – between a work of art, a model of thought and scientific speculation – marked not only frontiers but also points of displacement and transition.
It is rare to see an exhibition where an artist of Wallinger’s stature curates in a way that goes beyond creating a snap shot of a contemporary milieu where the longest reach is a close knit group of artist comrades. It is – by extension – rare to see an exhibition by a non-artist curator that can engage as effectively with objects ,spaces and such a wond erfully nuanced sense of signification as Wallinger has achieved in a show which literally works the hang as a form of composition.