Hymn is a video that runs for nearly five minutes. It was produced in an edition of ten with one artist's proof. Tate's copy is number six in the edition. The video is played continuously on a loop and displayed as a large projection so that the image fills the gallery wall. On rare occasions, within a particular context or combination of works, the artist has shown Hymn on a monitor. It forms the second part of the Talking in Tongues trilogy which also includes Angel 1997 (Tate T07394) and Prometheus 1999 (Tate T07742). Each video explores the theme of religion and features Wallinger in the guise of a character called Blind Faith, identifiable by his dark glasses, white shirt and black tie. He is seen in a different situation singing or reciting a text drawn from classical or popular literature. Wallinger has referred to this figure as 'an actor, a puppet, a hollow man', who never speaks 'anything that has not already been written.' (Quoted in Vischer, p.26.) In Angel, the first work of the trilogy, he repeatedly recites the first five verses of St. John's Gospel from the King James version (1611) of the Bible: 'In the beginning was the Word' while standing at the bottom of an escalator at Angel underground station, tapping the ground in front of him with a blind person's white cane.
In Hymn Wallinger stands on a box, like a Sunday evangelist, on Primrose Hill. A panoramic view of London, which includes the British Telecom Tower, forms the backdrop. He holds a blue helium-filled balloon upon which is printed a boy's smiling face - the artist himself at the age of ten. Between taking breaths from a mouthpiece connected to a cylinder at his feet, which contains a mixture of helium and oxygen, he sings six verses of a Victorian children's hymn, which begins:
There's a friend for little children
Above the light blue sky
A friend who never changes
Whose love will never die
A rest from every turmoil
From sin and sorrow free
Where every little pilgrim
Shall rest eternally.
The helium he inhales makes his voice higher, like the singing voice of a child. At the end of the hymn he lets go of the balloon, letting go, figuratively, of his childhood. While the balloon rises to heaven, the final frame shows the artist falling off the box, arrested abruptly in mid fall.
The work suggests an adult longing to return to a state of childish innocence, but also the impossibility of such a desire. Standing on a soap box singing the sentimental words of a Victorian hymn in a squeaky, helium-induced voice, Wallinger presents a comical figure. Hymn appears to mock the childish vision of souls ascending to heaven described by the song. Yet the works in the Talking in Tongues trilogy take religious belief and aspiration as their subject, and Hymn has a serious aspect to it. Wallinger has spoken of how the videos explore human desire: the desire for 'faith, innocence and eternal life' (quoted in Vischer, p.26). He has also noted that he chose the texts, such as the Victorian hymn, because they suggested the 'possibility of transformation and redemption' (quoted in Vischer, p.26). As one commentator has put it, perhaps Hymn should be seen as 'pondering what it would be to believe again.' (Lubbock 2001, pp.74-7.)
Theodora Vischer, Mark Wallinger: Lost Horizon, Museum für Gegenwartskunst Basel, Basel 2000, reproduced (colour) p.28
Mark Wallinger: Credo, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool, Liverpool 2000, reproduced (colour) p.85
Tom Lubbock, 'Wallinger and Religion', Modern Painters, Vol.14 No.3, Autumn 2001, pp.74-7, reproduced p.74