Prometheus is a two-minute video that plays on a continuous loop. It was produced in an edition of ten, with one artist's proof. Tate's copy is number six in the edition. Although it is intended to be displayed as a large projection, so that the image fills the gallery wall, it has also been shown on both a monitor and as a projection, as part of a larger installation of the same name (Whitechapel Art Gallery 2002). It forms the third part of the Talking in Tongues trilogy, which also includes Angel 1997 (Tate T07394) and Hymn 1997 (Tate T07798). Each video explores the theme of religion and features Wallinger in the guise of a character called Blind Faith, identifiable by his white shirt, black tie and black glasses. He is seen in a different situation singing or reciting a text. 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 in London. In the second work Hymn, he sings a Victorian children's hymn in a London park.
Prometheus was the third of the trilogy to be made. The 'blind' artist sits strapped into a replica of Old Sparky, the American electric chair. He has straps over his head obscuring his eyes and his clenched fists are tattooed with the words 'LOVE' and 'HATE'. He speaks the words of Ariel's song from William Shakespeare's (1564-1616) The Tempest (1611):
Full fathom five thy father lies; Of his bones are coral made; Those are pearls that were his eyes; Nothing of him that doth fade but doth suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange. Sea-nymphs hourly sing his knell; Ding-dong. Hark! Now I hear them, -Ding-dong, bell.
The recitation is slowed-down, while the moving image remains in real time. A strange voice, deepened to sound as if it were under water, recites the well known but almost unidentifiable words, while the artist's restrained toes and hands make small movements. At the end of the song, image and sound are rewound quickly. The small physical movements, sped up, have the effect of acute twitching, associated with a powerful electric shock. The quivering, high-pitched screeching noise of the soundtrack being rewound reinforces the image of mock execution. Once rewound, the slowed-down recitation begins again, in a continuous cycle, like Prometheus in Classical mythology, reborn every day to face the same torture from the gods who punished him for giving fire to humankind and fashioning mankind from clay.
In Prometheus Wallinger explores the paradoxes of creativity and the contradictory role of the artist. Prometheus is the creative artist who gave life to clay and Wallinger describes him as both 'creator' and 'destroyer' who is 'condemned for playing God.' (Quoted in Vischer, p.26). In a live interview at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London (2002), during his exhibition, Mark Wallinger: No Man's Land, Wallinger also related the Prometheus figure to Frankenstein in Mary Shelley's (1797-1851) novel of the same name. In Frankenstein (1816), whose alternative title was The Modern Prometheus, the artist/scientist pays the price for his pride in attempting to create life and is ultimately destroyed by his own monstrous creation.
Wallinger's Prometheus creates a disturbing image of torture, of life repeatedly destroyed by contemporary methods of execution and punishment. Yet by using Ariel's song from The Tempest, which includes the words 'Nothing of him that doth fade but doth suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange', Wallinger poses the question of what might happen after death. He thus relates the work to the human desire for 'transformation and redemption' (quoted in Vischer, p.26) that he explored in the earlier videos of the Talking in Tongues trilogy, most notably in Hymn where the character of Blind Faith sang the words of a sentimental, Victorian children's hymn about eternal life.
Theodora Vischer, Mark Wallinger: Lost Horizon, Museum für Gegenwartskunst Basel, Basel 2000, reproduced (colour) p.29
Mark Wallinger: Credo, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool, Liverpool 2000, reproduced (colour) p.67
Tom Lubbock, 'Wallinger and Religion', Modern Painters, Vol.14 No.3, Autumn 2001, pp.74-7