Displayed on four monitors individually mounted on wheeled flight cases positioned side by side in the gallery, Royal Ascot 1994 is a four channel colour video showing members of the British royal family on processions at the famous race meeting referenced in the title. Each one of the monitors shows three minutes and forty-three seconds of unedited footage from the BBC’s televised coverage of Royal Ascot taken on successive days of the four-day event in 1994. The videos start at the same time on each screen and play simultaneously until they reach their end. Each day’s footage presents a succession of horse-drawn carriages that travels along the racecourse and into the paddock area, with the Queen, Prince Philip and other members of the royal family seen waving from the carriages to the surrounding crowds. At an almost identical point in each day’s procession, a military regiment plays the British national anthem. The BBC commentators praise the parades – with phrases such as ‘what a moment’, ‘wonderful scene’ and ‘a very relaxed atmosphere’ – and pay particularly close attention to the royal family’s clothing. Tate’s copy of Royal Ascot is number one in an edition of three plus one artist’s proof.
In addition to this video installation, the London-based British artist Mark Wallinger wrote a poem in 1994 that was also entitled Royal Ascot. Just as the video depicts four near-identical versions of a royal parade, the poem contains four stanzas, each of which offers a description of the procession using very similar language to the other verses. The poem’s first stanza runs as follows:
imagine a parade with perfect
horses drawing carriages bearing
dignified people in beautiful clothes
kings and queens and princes and princesses
acclaimed by an adoring public
the guardsmen playing the national anthem
(Quoted in Ian Hunt, ‘Protesting Innocence’, in Tate Liverpool 2000, p.22.)
Held in Berkshire in south-east England, the annual Royal Ascot race meeting dates back to 1711 and is renowned for the socialising and displays of pageantry that take place during the event. Discussing Royal Ascot in 2011, Wallinger explained his fascination with this event and its wider cultural standing:
Royal Ascot was as much celebration as ridicule. Only these things come together then, only a fawning BBC could cover the precision of the parade so lavishly. So all those things, the way conventions of dress, etc. are strictly obeyed, are the result of tradition, both ludicrous and wonderful at the same time.
(Quoted in Herbert 2011, p.76.)
By closely aligning the footage from four different parades in his video installation, Wallinger draws attention to the tight choreography involved in such events. Furthermore, the manner in which the gestures of the participants and the remarks of commentators are repeated on all four days creates the impression of a formulaic and unchanging display that may be seen as a reflection of the wider class structure of British society. As the critic Martin Herbert has observed, ‘What Wallinger’s synchronised footage reveals is the rigidity of the class system in tangible form: the event is surreally identical every day’ (Herbert 2011, p.76). The four matching wheeled flight cases supporting the display monitors in Royal Ascot can be viewed as a reference to the royal carriages seen in the televised parades, yet these objects, which seem to evoke movement and transport, are presented stationary, perhaps suggesting a lack of social mobility within Britain.
Wallinger made several works during the 1990s and early 2000s that reflect his fascination with British horseracing traditions, their depiction in British art and the ways in which they engage with broader notions of national identity. Both the four-part oil painting Race, Class, Sex 1992 (Saatchi Collection, London; reproduced in Herbert 2011, pp.66–7) and Ghost 2001 (Tate T12337), a large digital photograph mounted in a lightbox, depict horses based on those featured in paintings by the renowned British artist George Stubbs (1724–1806). The critic Rachel Withers has argued that works such as Race, Class, Sex and Royal Ascot utilise ‘imagery from the racing world to broach issues of “good breeding”, inherited privilege, deference to tradition, and subservience to social precedent’ (Withers 2001, p.166).
Mark Wallinger: Credo, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool, Liverpool 2000, pp.20–2, reproduced pp.94–5.
Rachel Withers, ‘Customs Man: Mark Wallinger’, Artforum, vol.39, no.10, Summer 2001, pp.164–8.
Martin Herbert, Mark Wallinger, London 2011, p.76, reproduced pp.78–9.
Supported by Christie’s.