Sleeper 2004 is a single channel colour video in which the British artist Mark Wallinger is seen performing alone at night in the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, while wearing a brown bear suit. Displayed as a large projection in a darkened room, the video begins with a brief framing shot of the art gallery – a modernist structure characterised by a large, rectangular open space surrounded by glass walls – before it cuts to a closer perspective of the building’s interior, into which the ‘bear’ emerges from below via a staircase. Over the next two-and-a-half hours, Wallinger occupies the brightly lit space in a variety of ways: walking and running across the granite floor, lying and sitting down in a seemingly forlorn manner, hiding behind marble columns and wooden booths, and occasionally descending staircases into the galleries below ground level, where he remains unseen for short periods of time. The ‘bear’ also interacts, sometimes aggressively and sometimes playfully, with a small number of spectators watching from the other side of the glass walls. The video, which does not have sound, features footage taken both inside and outside of the gallery space, including close-ups of Wallinger’s performance, and is structured around long takes with minimal editing.
Usually based in London, Wallinger completed a residency in Berlin in 2001–2 that was organised by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), and returned to live in the city from 2003 to 2004. With the assistance of DAAD, he performed in the bear suit for ten successive evenings at the Neue Nationalgalerie in October 2004, and the footage for Sleeper was recorded by three cameras on the night of 16 October 2004, between 10pm and 1am. Sleeper was first displayed at the fifty-first Venice Biennale in 2005.
The nocturnal staging of Wallinger’s performance, during which the bear often appears to be tired or resting, may suggest an ironic edge to the title Sleeper. This title also refers to ‘sleeper’ agents, spies who live undercover in foreign locations for lengthy periods awaiting further instruction. In the video, the drifting movements of the bear are suggestive of boredom or the absence of an immediate purpose, and this, along with Wallinger’s disguise and the fact that he was himself living overseas at the time, further emphasises the connection to the life of a ‘sleeper’.
The associations with surveillance evoked by the title Sleeper are one of several ways in which Wallinger’s video relates to the history of Berlin, a city which held a pivotal position in the espionage battles of the Cold War from the end of the Second World War to the early 1990s. By appearing in a bear costume, Wallinger alludes to this animal’s status as a well-known symbol not only of Berlin, but also of Russia, a country whose history was deeply intertwined with the German capital throughout the twentieth century. Wallinger’s interactions with observers on the other side of the glass walls may also be seen as a reference to the way in which Berlin was physically divided by the Berlin Wall between 1961 and 1989, while the skyscrapers and lights of nearby Potsdamer Platz, through which the Wall once ran, can be seen throughout the video.
Wallinger has suggested that the ‘key’ to Sleeper was his childhood memories of The Singing Ringing Tree – a film made in East Germany in 1957 and serialised by the BBC in 1964, which featured a prince who is transformed into a bear. As Wallinger claimed in 2011: ‘I began to realize that this dramatized fairytale was known by my East German friends but not my West German ones and, in retrospect, it represented this psychic connection across the Iron Curtain’ (quoted in Herbert 2011, p.158).
Sleeper can also be assessed in terms of its engagement with the celebrated modernist design of the Neue Nationalgalerie, the final project carried out by the renowned German architect Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969). In a 2005 text written to accompany the work, Wallinger stated that ‘a transparent building is intimidating’ and that this gallery suggests ‘we have nothing to hide – art is for all to experience’ (Wallinger 2005, p.107). For curator Darren Pih, ‘Sleeper offers a wry critique of the high modernist notion of internationalism’, as Wallinger appears as ‘an alien in an environment shaped by different yet parallel cultural values and attitudes’ (Sillars and Pih 2007, p.13).
In exploring the history and symbols of Berlin, Sleeper can be viewed in light of Wallinger’s broader interest in the ways in which civic and national identities are formed. In his videos, sculptures, paintings, performances and installations, Wallinger has paid particular attention to symbols of British identity. For instance, A Model History 1987 consists of a miniature recreation of Stonehenge made from ordinary house bricks, while Oxymoron 1996 is a flag combining the design of the Union Jack with the hues of the Irish tricolour.
Mark Wallinger, ‘Sleeper’, Frieze, no.91, May 2005, pp.106–7.
Laurence Sillars and Darren Pih, Turner Prize 07, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool, Liverpool 2007, pp.12–13.
Martin Herbert, Mark Wallinger, London 2011, pp.6–7, 158–62.
Supported by Christie’s.