Walker and Walker
Walker and Walker

Re:Reflecting Romanticism

William L. Fox
When the film Nightfall by the Walker & Walker arrives via Fed Ex from Ireland, accompanying the DVD is the requisite voucher assuring the United States government that the enclosed material is neither obscene nor immoral, and that nothing in it advocates insurrection against the country or threatens violence against any of its citizens. Under the synopsis of contents, Joe Walker has written: “A man makes a journey across a lake to the site of an echo.” I pause as I open the package, wondering what a customs official would make of such a description.

What I am has already happened; and here, and now, it lives in me like a footprint on a trail, like a sound in an echo, and like a riddle in its answer.
Alessandro Baricco, Ocean Sea

No one simply turns on a light.
Oneself becomes image.
The echo's got in front,
begins again what's over
just at the moment it was done.
Robert Creeley, For Love

As if trying to outsmart his shadow they echo back through the artist’s life to the mirrored reflection.
Jeff Kelley, writing about Allan Kaprow’s work

The Irish twins Joe and Pat Walker were born in Dublin in 1962 and briefly attended the Limerick College of Art in 1984 before leaving to paint on their own. They started exhibiting in 1987 and two years later began collaborating as Walker and Walker. In an artists’ statement released in 1997 they decried “a culture saturated with mediocrity, banal and meaningless collections of inconsequential images,” and professed their pleasure in addressing the problem through reshufflings of the art history deck of cards. Their most widely reproduced work is a 1999 echo of a famous image, a fiberglass recreation of a romantic icon, the solitary figure gazing into infinite nature from Caspar David Friedrich’s 1811 painting The Wanderer Above the Sea of Mist.

In the painting the anonymous figure, dressed in the uniform of a volunteer ranger, is seen from behind, standing on a mountain summit and gazing out across the clouds toward ever-receding ranges in the distance. As with most of Friedrich’s paintings, the viewer in the gallery is behind the viewer in the painting, both poised on the edge of the effable world and looking for a reality beyond that which can be seen or spoken. Friedrich’s compositions are rife with echoes and mirroring devices, often including two protagonists side by side at dawn or twilight peering across the ocean, a valley, into a ruin. The figures are most often centrally placed, both in the way of our view of the landscape and yet, by simultaneously directing our gazing and dividing the world symmetrically into halves, defining it. Anyone immune to Friedrich’s seductive landscapes and the longing expressed by his figures needs to spend some time contemplating in solitude why he or she is bothering to take up space on the planet. On the other hand, anyone unable to appreciate the potential for the ironic yet sincere appropriation of Romantic images--yet another doubling--would do well to pay attention to the Irish twins.

The Walker and Walker version of the Wanderer placed his life-sized figure in the gallery and elevated slightly on small lit plastic blocks, back to the viewer, one leg slightly lifted in front of the other as in the painting. If you took the twins’ earlier statement at face value, then you could infer that they were contrasting Friedrich’s heartfelt commitment to the sublime in nature with the self-referential culture of postmodern art. Walker and Walker continued to mine Friedrich’s work and romanticism in general for resonant images. They excerpted the mountains being contemplated by the Wanderer as a sculpture, for example, and as another work inserted a halogen light in a wall to represent the totemic position of the North Star outside the gallery.

In 2005 the Walkers were two of the seven artists chosen to represent Ireland at the Venice Biennale, and the seven-minute 16 mm film Nightfall was their entry. Set at the Königssee, the deepest and purest lake in Germany, and shot through a blue-green filter to intimate twilight, the film tracks a solitary figure as he walks down through a forest, then pauses to examine two stones at the shore of the lake. He puts one in his pocket, drops the other, steps lightly into a boat, and begins to row across the water. This is a classic doubling device, your destination at your back as you row, thus watching where you’ve come from. To his surprise, he spies an identical figure walking down to the shore, and picking up the remaining stone. The rower, continuing his previously overdubbed musings on the falling of darkness, says in his first outloud words: “Beyond which lies darkness.” His doppelgänger replies: “Beyond darkness, the other side of silence,” then drops the stone, sending ripples across the lake.

The rower is startled to find that his double ashore has disappeared, whereupon he continues his traverse of the lake, pondering this space where the day is no more, yet darkness has not yet arrived, a space inhabited only by individuals wrapped in their thoughts, a space “in which whatever falls continues falling . . . falling.” The last word is taken up as an impossibly loud echo among the limestone cliffs, and as the echoes quickly fade, so does the film. And no, the rower and his twin are not played by either of the Walker twins, but by an actor. The film is not a self-portrait, but as with their fiberglass reproduction of the Wanderer the embodiment of an idea. Nightfall is a Friedrich moment in motion, a contemplative doubling of what we see and can’t see made manifest through sound and action.

Walker and Walker have continued to play with symbols and themes derived from Friedrich, but in more oblique terms, for example erasing everything from reproductions of paintings except the moon, one of his most oft used devices, or writing the word Twilight in reverse, Friedrich’s favorite time of day. The sign is meant to be read both backwards--looking back at the shoreline of our past--and forwards in its reflection from the window in front of which the sign is hung. Their 2008 neon sculpture, Ill heard, ill seen, which consists of two lines of text, “What, what? / Where, where?” is a yet another step removed from direct quotes and more into an inquiry into the general nature of our metaphysical speculations. The nature of mirroring and echoing, of course, reflect upon one another.

More recently Walker and Walker have stepped out of their nineteenth-century references to more modern ones. In 2004 they realized in metal a Dream Machine, a simple stroboscopic column designed by mathematician Ian Sommerville in 1959. After reading a description by Brion Gyson of the hallucinogenic effects generated by light flickering in between a column of trees during a bus ride to Marseilles, Sommerville decided to duplicate the effect. His device was rotated vertically on a record turntable and pulsed light out through carefully shaped slots onto the closed eyelids of viewers, thus stimulating everything from geometric hallucinations and fractals to repressed memories. It was, in short, a machine meant to help you get over to the other side of reality and a big hit with Gyson, Sommerville’s lover William Burroughs, and Timothy Leary among others. Walker and Walker, by re-creating it as a static and horizontal object, are dealing with a symbol of the Beat experience as opposed to the experience itself. When one thinks about it, of course, that’s what Friedrich was doing, assembling a catalog of landscape tropes for the Romantic state of being.

The Ghost of Cadere is another memorialized device. Cadere, born during 1934 in Warsaw, moved to Paris where he began to paint and assemble variously colored cylindrical units into staffs, the “Barres de Bois Rond” that he would carry with him on pre-mapped city walks. He gave some of his round wooden sticks to friends afterwards as a way of initiating a dialogue about the walk and larger issues--solitary wanderings recollected--but others he would bring uninvited into galleries and museums, placing them underneath selected artworks or leaning them against the walls nearby. The gesture was romantic in that it was oppositional, subversive, and meant to stimulate alternatives from the “real world” to the rarefied and monied art trade. Cadere died in 1978, a relatively obscure figure whose ephemeral Situationist interventions were an early example of how artists act out mappings through which to examine and react to social, economic, and political conditions. Cadere and psychogeography are obscure reference for most people, but a perfectly logical one within the practice of Walker and Walker.

Also from 2008 are new works such as the neon One night only, a slogan traditionally used by various promoters of supposedly mystical sights. And yes, the sign will sit dark in the gallery until one unspecified evening it will flicker on for the duration of that single night, then shut itself off the next morning, witnessed or not. The twins are alluding to magic acts, the promise of a curtain pulled back just now, just for you and no one else, yet another chance to see over that border of the visible into a larger reality. The romantic motive, that one can peer beyond the commonplace if acting in opposition to an authority otherwise passively accepted--be that a bourgeois lifestyle or the authority of a museum collection--is commonly perceived by Americans to be attributes of both the contemporary art world and to some extent the Irish national character. Perhaps that explains the disclaimer in the Fed Ex package.

Walker and Walker are engaged in a project that springs from their constitution as identical twins, a configuration as a lens through which to examine our relationship to the world. It’s robust but elusive work that takes some sleuthing to understand, but that’s the point. If you want to learn something and not just listen to yourself talk, you have to peer over the edge. That edge exists as much as an internal as external one, which is why Friedrich insisted that in order for artists to function they had to paint not just what was in front of them, but what they found inside themselves. Being twins would encourage and enable such considerations.

I am that other one who saw the desert
and in its eternity goes on watching it.
I am a mirror, an echo.
Borges, “Yesterdays”

We do not feel protected
By the walls, nor can we hide
Before the duplicating presence
Of their mirrors, pretending we are the ones who stare
From the other side, collected
In the glassy air.
Mark Strand, “Violent Storm

Answers are just echoes, they say. But
a question travels before it comes back,
and that counts.
William Stafford, Stories That Could be True