Monday, 7 February 2011


Sometimes when you call on an old friend, you instinctively know that this is not the right moment. Galleries are a bit like that in January: rooms blocked off, scaffolding showing, Harrier and Jaguar being dismantled in the Duveen Gallery (see first blog). So I called in at Tate Britain with no great expectations. But as soon as I heard the sound of Allegri’s Miserere Mei, Deus , I knew I’d come to the right place. Written to be sung in the Sistine Chapel, it’s a vibrant mixture of longing, hope and faith, a setting of Psalm 51.

It’s the sound track to Mark Wallinger’s inspirational video. What a find! I had no idea it had come back on display: you love works of art and one day they’re gone and you wait helplessly for someone to bring them back. (In fact there’s a double dose of joy - Susan Hiller’s exhibition has opened at Tate Britain (see my blog  Dedicated To The Unknown Artists. Alas I can’t write about it because it’s not free).

Threshold to the Kingdom features a pair of doors at London City Airport and a handful of passengers who walk through them towards the camera and towards you, the viewer. The story is that Wallinger and crew set up the camera, hit ‘Record’, casually looked the other way, and by the time they were thrown out, the footage was in the can. The airport doors open and close silently and automatically, and light moves on the glassy panes like glittering sunlight on water. The installation is in slow motion. so the ‘kingdom’ is measured in long seconds, each one to be savoured. A yawn takes forever, a shy girl pats her hair and strokes her neck for comfort.  A man slowly lifts his hand to touch a mobile clipped to the breast pocket of his neon jacket, and turns into an iconic Sacred Heart of Jesus holy picture – or, more prosaically, a man at a doctor’s surgery describing a mysterious pain. 

You notice that each walk is unique. A tall slim woman with a handbag and briefcase flows like a dancer, each limb poised and purposeful. Suddenly a nymph-like figure in black and white breaks into view from the side, runs into centre stage and out again like a small gazelle. Three elderly ladies in long black coats stretch out their arms to greet each other, forming a circle as they embrace. They linger there, like Canova’s Three Graces. Meanwhile the music seeps in, exuberant, piercing...’A broken and a contrite heart. O God. thou wilt not despise’. If you want to get all the words, I suggest you read it in the King James Version of the Bible (Psalm 51) whose 400th anniversary we’re celebrating this year. 

The video lasts just over 11 minutes. I found it hard to leave. The room it’s in is perfect – a circle of peace.On the way out I filled in a form to suggest that the floor was hard and a bench or two would come in handy. This is not for a five second glance, it’s for mindfulness, calm, stillness. 

Walking away I pass through the Duveen Gallery. This afternoon I'm reminded of something very different: Wallinger's later work State Britain 2006 which was once on this very spot. It's a reconstruction of Brian Haw's protest which became a landmark in Parliament Square. And Wallinger's the man who gave us Ecce Homo on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square....

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