Playful man

Art - Britart is pointless interior design, but one man stands apart

In his ground-breaking study of the importance of play, Homo Ludens, the Dutch philosopher Johan Huizinga begins with the following remark: "Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing. [Civilisation] does not come from play like a babe detaching itself from the womb: it arises in and as play, and never leaves it."

During the course of this remarkable book, Huizinga demonstrates that all aspects of human intercourse are inextricably linked to play. Play-making, he says, is marked by an absolute order. Into an imperfect world and the confusion of life, it brings limited perfection. The relativity and fragility of play worlds are there for all to see, but we continue to invest them with importance. We want our play worlds to be taken seriously. Together with sport - that other language in the condition of play-making autonomy - art is the most clear-cut demonstration of the play factor in operation, and nowhere in contemporary visual art is that factor employed to more emphatic purpose than in the work of Mark Wallinger.

Born in 1959, Wallinger studied at Chelsea School of Art and Goldsmiths College. Since 1983, he has been the subject of major solo exhibitions in Birmingham, London, Frankfurt, Basel, Milan and New York. He was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1995, received the prestigious Henry Moore Sculpture Fellowship to work at the British School at Rome in 1998 and will represent Britain at next year's Venice Biennale. "Credo", Wallinger's mid-career retrospective, has just opened at Tate Liverpool, providing audiences in this country with an opportunity to acquaint themselves with a comprehensive selection of his work.

Outside the museum and gallery sector, Wallinger was largely unknown until he was chosen by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce to produce the first of three temporary sculptures for the Fourth Plinth, a "cenotaph-excused" which has remained unoccupied since it was first erected in London's Trafalgar Square in 1841. Ecce Homo, Wallinger's modest, chalky representation of Jesus Christ as everyman, graced the pedestal as Big Ben rang in the new millennium just over ten months ago. It supplied a stark contrast to the dark, unmemorable statues elsewhere in the square, which are currently exercising the imagination of the Mayor of London. "Whether or not we regard Jesus as a deity," remarked Wallinger, at the time of the sculpture's unveiling, "he was, at the very least, a political leader of an oppressed people. Ecce Homo alludes to the recent historical past and its sad record of religious and racial intolerance."

Art generates aspects of culture. Concurrently, artists react to the world that surrounds them. Younger artists get into the media at the moment because they are seen to be mad, bad or dangerous. Wallinger's work proposes an alternative newsworthiness, one that steers clear of the show- business strategies associated with "Apocalypse" (at the Royal Academy) and "Ant Noises" (Saatchi Gallery). As Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas veer ever further in their work towards the glossy pointlessness of interior design, Wallinger continues to stand apart, addressing his attention to matters of universal concern beyond the therapeutic confines of the studio.

This is not to imply that Wallinger's work is grim-faced. Indeed, the artist's publication for his 1998 show at the Delfina in London, re-exhibited the following year at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, reproduces an oft-repeated quotation from Samuel Beckett: "In the beginning was the pun." The pun underpins much of Beckett's writing, and puns, quips and gags run like a pulse through the best of Wallinger's output, too. Like Beckett, Wallinger employs word-based humour in his work in order to examine a range of moral, philosophical and political issues, in the knowledge that parody and satire offer ways of revealing truths that resist disclosure by other means.

The gravity of Wallinger's play-making endeavour is well exemplified in Oxymoron. In the Tate's catalogue, Ian Hunt points out that the work presents us with a dichotomy. On the one hand, we are confronted with an image of the Union flag in which the red, white and blue palette has been replaced with the orange, white and green of the Irish tricolour. Such a simple chromatic gesture carries with it weighty geopolitical suggestions. Yet the sobriety of the work is seemingly threatened by the boyish behaviour depicted in the published photograph of the flag's installation on the roof of the London Printworks Trust in Brixton in 1996.

The best-known image of Oxymoron elicits close comparison with Joe Rosenthal's photograph of the raising of the Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima at the height of the US battle to capture the island in 1945. An icon of flag-waving patriotism unrivalled in the history of photojournalism, and now the subject of an excellent book by James Bradley (Flags of Our Fathers, Pimlico), the Rosenthal image was reconstituted in the round by Felix DeWeldon for the US Marine War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, unveiled in 1954. The composition has since been the subject of numerous artistic reinterpretations, notably Ed Kienholz's The Portable War Memorial in 1968, and Wallinger's project continues and builds on that tradition.

In the original Greek, oxymoron means "pointedly foolish" and Wallinger's deliberately impudent and imprudent work has a habit of contesting our beliefs without recourse to scorn. The artist is on record as criticising what he sees to be the haplessness of the radical impulse in any art form faced with the implacable forces of the belief system that we call the Establishment. Beliefs, self-evidently, are a product of the human condition. Class, religion and ideology exist only because humanity endows them with consequence, and the same applies to art. Famously described as the application of dirty liquid to a flat surface with a short, hairy stick, painting has the power to communicate a message only because we imbue it with significance. In the absence of that article of faith, it stands for nothing. In the show at Tate Liverpool, Oxymoron is not suspended from a flagpole, but pinned to the gallery wall, inviting us to consider it in the same way we might a canvas. Our belief in the importance of national identity and nationhood is equated with our belief in the primacy of painting, and both are found wanting.

The centrality of conviction in sport, and the process of passionate identification that accompanies it, is a theme Wallinger returns to in his newest work, Cave. The symbolic status of belonging was cleverly dealt with through the prism of football in They Think It's All Over . . . It Is Now of 1988 and Mark Wallinger, 31 Hayes Court, Camberwell New Road, Camberwell, London, England, Great Britain, Europe, The World, The Solar System, The Galaxy, The Universe (1994), and received similar treatment in his large body of work devoted to the turf of the mid-1990s. Cave propels that interest into the arena of boxing.

The boxing ring, an atavistic chasm if ever there was one, is recreated in the gallery space in the form of a large, four-screen video installation. Shot simultaneously from the middle of each of the four sides of the ring during the course of a lightweight contest, Cave presents one three-minute round expanded to 12 minutes, the length of an entire amateur bout, so that the snappy punch and counter-punch of the action is reduced to a stumbling, disjointed ballet. Cave is a solemn and disturbing work, made all the more unsettling by the ambient sound, a sinister melange of bestial grunts and moans. When the bell finally clangs an end to the contest, its chime seems to announce the approach of death itself.

The great British middleweight Nigel Benn, nicknamed the Dark Destroyer, used to arrive at ringside to the lament of a tolling bell, and Cave carries with it the same doom-laden suggestion. The installation reinforces our understanding that boxing is a sport which occasionally throws up individuals and events that enter the collective consciousness as cherished memories. None the less, it also strengthens our conviction that fighting, officially sanctioned or otherwise, is play-making at its most extreme.

By opening out the action to the four walls of the gallery, Wallinger places the spectator in the position normally reserved for the combatants, inverting the relationship between the observer and the observed. We are placed centre stage, but the on-screen audience continues to ignore us, focusing instead on the pugilistic encounter taking place at the installation's margins, a "non-place" where the game of winning and losing is replayed, Prometheus-like, as the tapes loop to infinity.

On the cover of Wallinger's Brussels-London catalogue, the artist professed his innocence of everything with the insistence of a bill-sticker, but that position was never going to be sustainable. His Tate retrospective illustrates that the globe subtends to the artist's scrutiny, a notion realised in his 1995 self-portrait My Little Eye. Wallinger's painstaking observations of and comments on the public domain reflect an erudition and a formal probity that are quite unique among artists of his generation. If there is any justice in the art world, then the Golden Lion at next year's Venice Biennale is already his.

"Credo" continues at Tate Liverpool (0151 702 7400) until 23 December. The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue containing essays by Ian Hunt and David Burrows (£19.99)

Cave can be seen at Milton Keynes Gallery from 27 January to 25 March 2001 and at Southampton City Art Gallery from 6 April to 24 June 2001

Paul Bonaventura is a senior research fellow in fine art studies at Oxford University