Where There’s Muck 1985 consists of ten rectangular pieces of plywood affixed to the gallery wall, over which the word ‘ALBioN’ has been spray-painted in large blue letters. The panels are of different sizes and are arranged in an irregular horizontal formation, with some overlapping each other. A single sheet of corrugated iron occupies the centre of this arrangement and appears to have been attached to the wall after the other elements, for it is positioned over a part of the spray-painted word. Reproduced in black charcoal on the plywood pieces are enlarged fragments of the painting Mr and Mrs Andrews c.1750 (National Gallery, London) by the British artist Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788), a portrait of a wealthy couple on their large country estate. Scorch marks and lines of yellow paint also appear on the plywood panels, many of which contain holes burnt through them. The metal sheet, which is heavily pock-marked, is spray-painted gold and features an image in black cellulose paint of a man wearing a cap and carrying a rattle.
Where There’s Muck was created by the British artist Mark Wallinger in 1985, the year he completed a Masters degree in fine art at Goldsmiths College in London. It formed part of his first solo exhibition in London, held at the Anthony Reynolds Gallery in 1986. The plywood panels used in the work were taken from packing boxes at the left-wing bookshop Collett’s on Charing Cross Road, London, where Wallinger worked between 1981 and 1988. The artist based the figure on the iron sheet on an image he discovered in an agricultural history book of a man employed to work as a human scarecrow in the nineteenth century.
The title of the work alludes to the popular saying, commonly associated with Yorkshire, ‘where’s there’s muck, there’s brass’, which implies that money can be made from dirty or difficult jobs. ‘Albion’ is the oldest known name for the island of Great Britain and its mythic associations with British (and especially English) identity were often drawn upon by artists and writers of the Romantic period.
Where There’s Muck appears to suggest that the prosperity seen in Gainsborough’s painting – an image that may support notions of ‘Albion’ as a rural splendour – also contains dirtier aspects, namely the harsh agricultural labour required to generate such wealth. In that it forcibly fragments an image of the idyllic landscape that Gainsborough painted, Wallinger’s work questions the cultural and political status of the representation. The critic Martin Herbert has argued that in Where There’s Muck, ‘the sour truth underpinning the elysian English past being gestured towards is that for every easeful man of property, members of the working class were reduced to acting as human scarecrows as a result of the steady erosion of common rights to work the land’ (Herbert 2011, p.22). The way that ‘ALBioN’ has been spray painted over the wall like urban graffiti also seems to challenge conventional assumptions linking British identity with the countryside.
The work can also be considered in relation to the political context of the 1980s, and especially to the social upheavals associated with Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister (1979–1990). Wallinger’s use of cheap and seemingly damaged or discarded materials – which offer a stark contrast to the prestigious status of the original Gainsborough painting – may be related to the decade’s outbreaks of urban unrest, especially given the scorch marks on the wood.
Other works by Wallinger from this period confront images and phrases that have shaped notions of British identity. His Common Grain series, also completed in 1985, features terms such as ‘Jerusalem’ – the title of the hymn often proposed as an English national anthem – spray-painted across reproductions made on plywood of rural scenes originally painted by George Stubbs (1724–1806).
Wallinger has explained why his work from the mid-1980s appropriated imagery from celebrated British artists of the past:
These works were fuelled by anger at the misrepresentation of England as I knew and experienced it ... Very early on I thought that to address the particular in terms of class and nationality was a kind of responsibility, especially when the art of the time seemed overtly concerned to be international in an anodyne and spurious way. I felt my duty, almost, was to address the politics of representation and one has to deal with specifics.
(Quoted in Museum of Contemporary Art 1999, p.10.)
Since making Where There’s Muck, Wallinger has continued to examine symbols of British national identity. 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 colours of the Irish tricolor.
Mark Wallinger: Lost Horizon, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Basel 1999.
Mark Wallinger: Credo, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool, Liverpool 2000, reproduced p.88.
Martin Herbert, Mark Wallinger, London 2011, pp.14–16, 22, reproduced p.15.
Supported by Christie’s.