Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith
Time and space are modes by which we think and not conditions in which we live.
It is thirty years since twin brothers Joe and Pat Walker began collaborating as Walker and Walker. Initially grounded in sculpture, their practice has expanded over the decades to encompass a range of other media, most notably film installation and variously manipulated found text. Drawing sustenance from a spectrum of sources, both literary and art historical, their work is also fuelled by a fascination with the ways in which we have come to negotiate space and time. One persistent tendency has been a reanimation, at once quizzical and melancholic, of the rich legacy of Northern European Romanticism. The spectre of Caspar David Friedrich, in particular, haunted a number of earlier works, the most emblematic of which was their life-sized fibreglass rendition of the solitary Rückenfigur in Friedrich’s The Wanderer above the Sea of Mist (1818). Realised in 1999, as the twentieth century was shading into the twenty-first, this determined ranger pensively surveying the sublime incommensurability of the natural world, remains a telling surrogate for the artists in light of subsequent explorations and projects.
In 2005 Walker and Walker produced another signal work, Nightfall, with which they co-represented Ireland at that year’s Venice Biennale. Set by the shore of the Königsee in Bavaria, this film’s seven-minute narrative was once summarised by Joe Walker as “a man makes a journey across a lake to the site of an echo”, and it has been aptly described by the critic Francis McKee as presenting “a linear scene but with a tear in the fabric of time”. The confounding of spatial perception and temporal experience alike have been productive subjects of interest in a body of work much given to disconcerting echoes and mirrorings, uncanny doublings and reversals. That the Walkers are identical twins is hardly incidental here; and, though their work abjures any intimations of personal expression, much less autobiographical allusion, their surname fortuitously chimes with the invocation, in different works over the years, of Friedrich’s Romantic wanderer as well as Baudelaire’s strolling flâneur and Beckett’s displaced tramps. The spirit of one of contemporary art’s most dedicated nomads, André Cadere, is also summoned by their black-and-white version of one his migrating barres de bois rond in The Ghost of Cadere (2008).
Continuing onward, the 2010 film Mount Analogue Revisited, shot on HD video, takes as its point of departure René Daumal’s unfinished and posthumously published 1952 novel about a voyage to an unknown island in search of a fantastical mountain linking heaven to earth. At the core of Walker and Walker’s film is a newly scripted conversation between several of the novel’s characters, three voyagers and a municipal official, in addition to the novelist himself, while it also draws on the writings of a heterodox canon of European writers including Novalis, Edgar Allen Poe, Hermann Hesse, Maurice Blanchot and Stanisław Lem. The conversation takes the form of a philosophical enquiry into the nature of truth, the limits of reason and the possibility of higher forms of being.
Mount Analogue Revisited was at the heart of an installation presented by Walker and Walker at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane in 2012 under the title The Owl of Minerva. This included a taxidermied literalisation of Hegel’s famous image for the wisdom afforded only by the retrospective gaze of history. It also included several text-based works, thereby registering another persistent strain of enquiry, given that Walker and Walker have often shuttled between – and occasionally melded – their engagements with visuality and textuality. Among these works was a wall-based series of aluminium ‘image-texts’, each of which described the space between the two letters in a specific English conjunction, preposition or verbal form (‘if’, ‘or’, ‘to’, ‘do’, ‘is’). By foregrounding such interstices, while sidelining the signs through which meaning is conventionally generated, our attention is redirected to the ordinarily unregarded. A comparable confounding of our habitual modes of apperception is evident in Night Drawings (2008–), an ongoing series comprising pages torn from various books, chosen for their specific resonances, all of which have been covered in black ink apart from every instance of the letter ‘o’. Once again, the tradition of the Romantic sublime is evoked, though in so capricious a manner as also to suggest its opposite, i.e. a desublimation of some luminous antecedents in contemporary art, such as the exquisitely starry night skies of the Latvian-American painter Vija Celmins or the German photographer Thomas Ruff.
While the obscured passages in the Night Drawings may be (un)read as the inverse of illuminated text, ‘illumination’ per se is not entirely disavowed in the work of Walker and Walker, or in the world view to which it attests. Such illumination as we are offered, however, tends to be partial, inconstant or otherwise compromised. A telling example is One Night Only (2012), a neon sign displaying precisely this phrase, which lights up for one unspecified night only during the course of a given exhibition. If this sculpture seems designed to frustrate the expectations of the exhibition-going public, the opposite may be true of Untitled (Theatre Spotlight) (2008). According to the artists, on most occasions this work has been shown, very few visitors have been willing to accept its implied invitation to present themselves for scrutiny by stepping into its radiant beam of light. It is a testament to the value of Walker and Walker’s unique brand of negative dialectics that they could produce an artwork whose own expectations were destined to be disappointed by its intended public, while in the process revealing something about the nature of both, as well as the interaction between them.