Threshold to the Kingdom
Mark Wallinger’s stunning video work, Threshold to the Kingdom, was at the prestigious Whitechapel Gallery when I was recently in London. It was part of a group exhibition called Life is More Important Than Art (that’s why Art is Important). The show was striking, to say the least. In it, artists of various disciplines (video, film, installation, painting) addressed the theme of hope and loss in a post-Covid world. Wallinger’s video was in the last room. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen it.
I’d encountered Threshold to the Kingdom in Venice more than twenty years before my viewing at Whitechapel. Wallinger was representing Britain at the Biennale in 2001, and Threshold to the Kingdom had a dramatic impact. I had never seen anything like it.
An eleven-minute, twelve second video, Threshold to the Kingdom is the single take of a fixed camera set up (surreptitiously and without permission) opposite the customs hall at London City Airport. The unchanging view is of the airport’s international arrivals doors opening and closing. The opaque electric threshold reveals passengers and crew members as they move in slow motion from the secure area into the public lounge. Figures are about twice life size. The haunting music is from Miserere, a seventeenth-century rendition of the Bible’s fifty-first psalm by the Italian composer Gregorio Allegri.
In Threshold to the Kingdom, the viewer observes something ordinary, something that most of us have experienced. We have all waited for friends or loved ones to come through similar arrival gates. But the unwavering gaze of Wallinger’s hidden camera turns the uneventful into high drama, the everyday into the miraculous.
Normally, when we find ourselves standing on the public side of an airport arrivals lounge our gaze skips over strangers as we search for a familiar face. There is always a vague sense of unease. Perhaps we are at the wrong exit; perhaps we’ve missed the anticipated object of our attention. So invested are we in seeing who we are there to meet, we tend not to look closely at others exiting. Wallinger invites us to look again and in doing so fires our imagination. The mundane turns heroic.
The flight crews seem taller than others and walk so confidently through the sliding doors they seem almost a breed apart. The reunion of two elderly ladies becomes a moment charged with joy, and we are immediately curious: are they sisters, friends, long-separated former lovers? A businessman strides purposely through the gates with his briefcase and set countenance. The sudden appearance of a woman running in front of the camera in a curving arc surprises us with her athletic presence. Is there some kind of emergency? We don’t find out because Wallinger raises questions in his work but doesn’t answer them.
Our attention is taken by a man standing a few meters from the exit. He seems lost. Perhaps he is new to the country and is overwhelmed as other passengers pass him rapidly by. Maybe he was expecting somebody to greet him who is not there. We never learn his fate.
The seated security guard to the left of the doors hardly moves, and this singular immobility makes him seem guardian of some mystic transformation. St. Peter at the gates of heaven? A soldier at the tomb? The angel at the entrance to paradise. These associations pass through our imaginations as they pass through Wallinger’s unvarying focal length. The artist is as surprised as we are by those who come through the doors.
The spiritual overtones of this strangely beautiful, mysteriously compelling video are far from accidental. Before making Threshold to the Kingdom, Wallinger believed that he suffered from fear of flying. But he came to realize it wasn’t air travel he was afraid of.
Wallinger says: “It was airports. It was that incredible scrutiny, the state examining one, which you don’t feel anywhere else. The powerful relief you feel when you finally arrive home, or the state you’re hoping to reach, seems rather like confession and absolution.” (Herbert, 2011, p. 112).
There is a lot going on in Threshold to the Kingdom. It’s a universe of possibility in an eternal present tense, and I remember that in Venice I was deeply moved at having my attention captured so absolutely. Threshold to the Kingdom brought me firmly into the present moment (where what some of us call God lives). It left me exhilarated.
More than twenty years later, when I encountered Wallinger’s piece for the second time, I could vividly recall the sensation of being energized by it in Venice. And wasn’t it remarkable (I thought, as I made my way from the Whitechapel gallery toward Brick Lane) that the same piece is still so energizing so many years later. I’ll go so far as to say even more-so now than when it was first made.
There is a shared human experience in Threshold to the Kingdom – empathy, almost a camaraderie that we feel for the people exiting the hall. Are they returning to the cares and concerns of the physical world? Or are they on the threshold of the divine, the mystical, the other-worldly? Post-Covid, our admission into a spiritual dimension is not the abstract notion it was. It’s as real as an airport now.
I wonder if we are more empathetic, now that we are more aware of our vulnerability. Have we collectively found a new humility that makes us realize that it is only in working together, in helping others, we can move forward and survive the challenges that surely will come? I’m not sure. The continuing relevance of Threshold to the Kingdom is not comforting. We cannot un-see what we have seen. We now live in a world that knows that another Covid, or something like it, will come again.
In what form? We do not know. In may be climate change, the existence of which is no longer a debate. (That horse has already bolted.) Or perhaps another pandemic? We can only try to manage the consequences. By the time I saw Threshold to the Kingdom a second time, it was a different world – a world that only magnifies Wallinger’s original vision. It was the last room in the Whitechapel show. Threshold to the Kingdom was a powerful concluding statement.
I remember leaving the gallery that day. I made my way down the tapestry of life that is Brick Lane, toward Nicholas Hawksmoor’s magnificent Christ Church Spitalfields. It’s a route I’ve walked many times. But the impact of Wallinger’s work was such that I wasn’t quite sure, somehow, of my surroundings. Everything looked - at least for a while - different. I felt as though I had on a new pair of glasses. I admired Hawksmoor’s strong, clean lines as I have admired them many times, but this time, while I did, Wallinger’s remarkable video was still very much with me. It raises questions. I thought of the curious title of one of Paul Gauguin’s best-known paintings: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
Who knows the answers to the questions Mark Wallinger asks? Doors open. Doors close. Doors open again.
- Bill Gregory, Sydney, August 2023