Mark Wallinger's horse of another colour

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The selection of Mark Wallinger's proposal for a giant white horse for Ebbsfleet international station in Kent is an event of some cultural significance.

In terms of size alone it will be impressive, if not disturbing. An exact replica of a white stallion, it will be 50 metres tall (164 feet), two and a half times higher than the Angel of the North and roughly the same height as Nelson's Column, and stand on an area the size of 50 football pitches, making it the largest work of public art in Britain.

It is testimony to the huge shift in British public attitudes to modern art that has taken place over the last decade or so. Britain has been very conservative in these matters: in the 1930s Rima, Jacob Epstein's mild relief sculpture in Hyde Park, was repeatedly defaced and in the 1960s the National Gallery's purchase of a Cézanne was greeted with howls of derision.

The way the public warmed to the Angel of the North in 1998 was one definite sign of the shift, the success of Tate Modern another. It confirms the trend in that, whereas until recently a commission such as this would have been almost unthinkable, the White Horse seems to have been met with substantial approval.

Certainly it meets the standard requirement of such a monument in that it combines a number of local and historical references. Kent is a horse breeding area and Horsa, the semi-mythological Anglo-Saxon figure, who gave his name to the horse, allegedly landed at nearby Thanet in the 5th century, with the result that a white horse became the emblem of Kent. There are nods in the direction of the Bronze Age White Horse of Uffington in Berkshire and its modern Folkestone equivalent, as well as the underlying chalk and the White Cliffs of Dover. Although, significantly, Wallinger resisted pressure from Kent Council to depict the horse prancing or rampant as in the Kent emblem, preferring the less stylised, unheroic image of a grazing horse.

Both Wallinger and his work come distinctly "from left field". Wallinger is best known for his 2007 Turner Prize winning piece State Britain, an exact recreation in Tate Britain of Brian Haw's anti Iraq war protest in Parliament Square. In itself this doesn't make the White Horse good or bad but it does suggest a closer look at Wallinger's thought processes, especially as he has always been quite an "intellectual" theorised artist.

In fact Wallinger has long been making artwork with "horse" motifs in which horse racing or breeding serves as an analogue or symbol of the class system, English identity and other issues. In 1992 he made a series of photo-realist paintings of horses called Race, Class and Sex which looked at the relations between breeding, eugenics and class - Wallinger called horse breeding "eugenics by proxy".

He also made a black and white replica of George Stubbs' 18th century race horse painting, Whistlejacket, often hailed as an icon of Englishness, added a unicorn horn and called it Ghost - the spectral fantasy of English "identity".

Later he bought an actual racehorse, which he called A Real Work of Art, and ran it in suffragette racing colours (purple, green and white) while dressing himself up in the colours of Emily Davison, the suffragette who threw herself under the king's horse in the 1913 Derby. At the same time as commenting on class and gender this work was an exploration, as its name implies, of the issue of realism in art and the perennial "what is art?" question.

The French artist Marcel Duchamp, with his ready-mades, floated the idea that a work of art was simply what an artist designated as such, and the philosopher of art Arthur Danto, responding to Andy Warhol's Brillo Pads, developed the idea that art is what the institutions of the art world (galleries, critics, art colleges, etc) say it is. Wallinger regarded the latter as a "patently conservative position" (both are philosophically idealist positions) and set out to challenge it by nominating as art something from life outside the gallery or art world. Clearly there is also an element of playfulness here - imagine the race commentator intoning, "It's A Real Work of Art coming up on the rails…and the winner is…A Real Work of Art!"

A neglected aspect of realism and naturalism in artistic representation is the question of scale. How can we regard as "realist" an image that is a completely different size? Wallinger investigated this in reverse in Ecce Homo, an exactly life-size representation of a man as a Christ figure, placed on the vacant Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. Because all the other figures in the Square are much larger than life size, Wallinger's looked uncannily small. The Ebbsfleet horse reverses the issue again by trying to be "uncannily realistic" (Wallinger's words) on a gigantic scale that somehow manages to recall a tiny model in a child's farmyard set.

None of this tells us how the white horse will actually turn out but it does suggest it will be one of the more interesting pieces of public art of recent times.