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> View an interview with Mark Wallinger discussing Y


Further Information

The University of Oxford and its constituent colleges have a long and distinguished history of commissioning the leading architects and artists of their day, from Sir Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre, which was erected to provide an appropriate secular venue for the principal meetings and public ceremonies of the University, to Sir Jacob Epstein’s haunting Lazarus in New College Chapel.

There have been few opportunities for the finest artists in the 21st century, but this has now changed with Magdalen College’s 550th anniversary commission to Mark Wallinger. Wallinger’s Y is a two-faced sculpture formed in square section steel and has a silvery, metallic finish. It is positioned in the small clearing at the east end of Bat Willow Meadow among a mature stand of trees and faces westwards, towards the main College buildings, to reflect the setting sun of midsummer. Y alludes to the history of Magdalen College, its architecture and its deer, and the abundant vegetation in its grounds.

"The bifurcating forks or tines," the artist explains, "are like the branches of the College’s ancestral tree or the antlers of the College deer. The repeated figure references divining rods, typically cut from the trees found in Bat Willow Meadow, and the structure echoes the Gothic tracery, which is present within the architecture of the College. The forks represent the life force - the encoded mathematics of creation, the order of things - pushing out to the future, while the divining fork takes us back to our source, the earth. This reaching out and drawing back is implied in the map of a family tree, when we place ourselves as the trunk, when we surely know we are the furthest tiniest branch. In the sculpture each branch of the tree represents a progenitor going back seventeen generations to the year 1458, when the College was established."

The artist has used the golden ratio to generate the linear form of his sculpture. The golden ratio is the name given to an irrational proportion, known at least since the time of the ancient Greek mathematician Euclid, which has often been thought to possess aesthetic virtue, some hidden harmonic proportion in tune with the universe. In mathematics and the arts, two quantities are in the golden ratio if the ratio between the sum of those quantities and the larger one is the same as the ratio between the larger one and the smaller. In practice, this works out at about 8:13.

A whole host of other contexts are also referenced in Wallinger’s work. In mathematics, for example, the y-axis is the vertical axis in a plane coordinate system and one of the three axes of a three-dimensional Cartesian coordinate system. In biology, Y-chromosome DNA is a type of DNA that is only carried by men and it is only inherited from their fathers. Men who share a common paternal ancestor will have virtually the same Y-DNA, even if that male ancestor lived many generations ago.

Significantly, in the system of Greek numerals the letter upsilon, whose upper case form closely resembles the letter Y in the Latin alphabet, has a value of 400. In the system of medieval Roman numerals, however, the letter Y has a value of 150. By adding these two values together we arrive at the number 550, which is the very anniversary for which the work has been commissioned.

Included in the artworks on display to the public in Magdalen College is the best surviving copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper by a close Milanese follower, where it is displayed in a late 15th-century setting high on the wall of the Chapel. In Chaplain’s Quadrangle there is a bronze sculpture of Christ and Mary Magdalen presented to the College by David Wynne in 1964. To these exceptional pieces can now be added Mark Wallinger’s Y, a bold and uncompromising sculpture by one of today’s supreme artists.

Education notes

Magdalen College has asked freelance educator Miranda Millward to create a set of education notes to provide some initial guidance for group visits to see Mark Wallinger’s sculpture
Y. The notes are not key stage specific, but we hope that they will be relevant to both secondary art and design teachers and fine art foundation tutors. Older pupils and students may also find the notes useful for their critical and contextual studies and project ideas.

The works discussed are reproduced at A4 size so that they can be printed out and used as a resource in the classroom or studio. The notes aim to give a few jumping-off points to explore not just the sculpture in College, but also the artist’s work more generally and they can be downloaded as a PDF.