Ghost 2001 is a very large black and white digital photograph mounted on an aluminium lightbox that depicts a horse with a spiralled horn protruding from its head. The horse’s muscular body is shown in full from its right side, and is reared up so that its two front hooves are raised in the air. There are slight shadows under the horse’s back hooves and its thick, flowing tail reaches to the floor. Its head is turned slightly towards the viewer and the horn between its ears is reminiscent of that of a unicorn. The horse fills most of the space in the photograph and the background consists of a grey and black void. The image is based on a scanned reproduction of the highly celebrated oil painting Whistlejacket c.1762 (National Gallery, London) by the British artist George Stubbs (1724–1806), which depicts a deep brown-coloured racehorse against a plain beige background. Stubbs’s painting is reproduced at its original scale in Ghost, giving the horse a monumental quality that emphasises its physical power. The tones of the black and white reproduction are reversed so that the image appears in negative. As a result, the sharp white of the animal’s body contrasts with the dark background, an effect heightened by the illumination provided by the lightbox.
Ghost was made by the British artist Mark Wallinger in London in 2001. Wallinger originally planned to make an oil painting of a white unicorn, the preparation for which involved him creating negative reproductions of Stubbs’s Whistlejacket. Wallinger has explained how these reproductions led him to rethink his original idea for Ghost: ‘The results looked like an X-ray, rather than a negative. And that, of course, brings up the notions of X-raying paintings, the secret life of paintings beyond the surface. So, in that instantaneous way, I had something that was a lot more interesting than anything I could labour away at’ (quoted in Herbert 2011, p.139). Wallinger used Photoshop to add a horn to the horse’s head that is based on the tusk of a type of whale called a narwhal.
As well as referencing the spectral appearance of the horse, the title Ghost may allude to the way in which Stubbs’s original painting haunts Wallinger’s digitally manipulated reproduction. Furthermore, Wallinger engages with the nature of artistic authenticity by appropriating Stubbs’s painting and making alterations to it that raise associations with a mythical creature. The allusion to a unicorn may also suggest that digital technologies hold magical possibilities. In 2001 the critic and curator Ralph Rugoff stated that Wallinger uses the animal in Ghost as a means of reflecting on questions of realism and idealism in painting:
By transforming the horse into a unicorn, Wallinger wryly calls our attention to the ethos of fantasy underlying Stubbs’s realism. The vision of the riderless, rearing thoroughbred as a sovereign creature, an avatar of unbridled virility is, of course, an absurdity; such horses are nothing more than glorified beasts of burden, genetically bred for a dangerous sport and traded on a speculative market.
(Ralph Rugoff, ‘Jesus is an Oxymoron’, in British Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2001, p.11.)
In the videos, sculptures, paintings, performances and installations that Wallinger has made throughout his career, he has frequently referenced well-known British artworks, with a particular emphasis on those that have shaped notions of British national identity. His mixed media wall piece Where There’s Muck 1985 (Tate T12798), for instance, makes use of a fragmented reproduction of a painting by the British painter Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788), and Stubbs is again referenced by Wallinger in the Common Grain series of works (completed between 1984 and 1985), which features paintings by Stubbs reproduced on plywood with slogans spray-painted over parts of them.
Ghost was first exhibited in 2001 as part of Wallinger’s exhibition at the British Pavilion at the 49th Venice Biennale – an appropriate context for a work that focuses on a specific element of British culture, namely horses and horseracing. Wallinger made several works during the 1990s and early 2000s that reflect his fascination with British horseracing traditions and their place within British art. For instance, Race, Class, Sex 1992 (Saatchi Collection, London; reproduced in Herbert 2011, pp.66–7) is a four-part oil painting depicting life-sized stallions based on horses in Stubbs’s work, while the video installation Royal Ascot 1994 (Tate T12810) features four monitors positioned on flight cases that show footage of members of the British royal family at the famous race meeting referred to in the title.
Mark Wallinger, exhibition catalogue, British Pavilion, Venice Biennale, Venice 2001, pp.10–11, reproduced no.5, unpaginated.
Tom Lubbock, ‘Wallinger, Mark: Ghost (2001)’, Independent, 7 December 2007, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/great-works/wallinger-mark--ghost-2001-763417.html, accessed 18 September 2014.
Martin Herbert, Mark Wallinger, London 2011, pp.138–9, reproduced p.138.
Supported by Christie’s.