by Seth Lower
Though they may conceal a mystery, or betray it, these elements which make a mockery of systems have only one serious, obvious quality, which is to ‘be there.’
– Alain Robbe-Grillet, For a New Novel
Sublimity manifests itself in an ecstatic interaction, literally a ‘putting out of place’ of the audience, and a kind of identification between speaker and listener that is routed through both distinctions and equivalencies between the artistic and the natural.
– Jeffrey Kastner quoting Longinus, Call of the Wild: Four Natural Duets for Richard T. Walker
“What a nice place.”
“Yeah, the tree makes it nice.”
“And flowers. Let’s not pick ‘em.”
– Badlands, 1973
How does one communicate immensity, timelessness, consciousness, failure, love, objecthood, attachment to a place, relating one’s body and thoughts to the earth, the eternally unfathomable?
in defiance of being here is a small exhibition catalog of the British-American artist Richard T. Walker. The smattering of images are a good introduction to his aesthetic and the texts are insightful and helpful in unpacking and contextualizing Walker’s practice, particularly around the framework of land artists, the Romantics, and other seekers of the sublime.
Walker’s work is often filtered through the established frameworks of talking about love (and self and consciousness), but the object of his love is not a human but an anonymous American landscape: geographical features, natural elements, trees, mostly of desert varieties. And yet, his love letters to the landscape, to paraphrase Jeffrey Kastner’s introductory essay, feel unrequited, they feel like unhappy love, never to be realized. Sometimes that’s better anyway. The landscape is unresponsive, apathetic, or if it does respond it does so obliquely, to be interpreted. We might think it’s all a joke, but the landscape is the stand-in which allows the conversation to happen, through which issues may be explored in ways that are more about the difficulties of being, or about the translating of experiences from source to receiver, and less about any specifics of the artist’s personal grievances, anxieties, or loves. He philosophizes, he moves his equipment around, he sets up musical instruments, he gazes longingly or reflectively at the fading landscape. When words seem to fail, he sings or plays an instrument, serenading the land or else making his lonesome stand, like a mateless mockingbird in the morning hours. Music, in these cases, is a cure for intellectual longing for unnamed feelings.
There are some overlaps with the old order of land artists, as Kastner points out—solitary wanderers like Long and Fulton and Goldsworthy. Walker moves through the landscape seeking a truer experience, but he isn’t the stoic male explorer, nor is he the Romantic painter or weekender in search of a direct-to-nature experience. He attempts a dialog with the landscape where the others sought silence. The others had a physical-spiritual relationship to it, and through changing it, created/released/captured a profound spirit. Walker is not shaping the land, he’s not using endurance or strength; he’s using his feelings.
And yet, despite all of the revelations of inner ponderings, we rarely see his face. He’s turned toward the mountains, directing his attention to the land, in line with the Romantic or sublime traditions. He’s not defined as such, nor are the places. By leaving things open he sets up a layered reading, where he’s talking to us even while he’s talking away from us, ignoring us even, and we get the feeling he’s really talking to himself or to a third party, kind of like Bob Dylan’s you. There are no piles of pinecones, no maps outlining the courses walked. He is in a place, he is there, wherever that is; trees and mountains are also there; we’re here but we’re thinking about being there, and we’re reminded of the constraints of knowing and telling in general.
I think of Bas Jan Ader. Or Rodney Graham. Or Westerns in which the sudden presence of a song encourages us to feel a certain kind of melancholy. But while both Graham and Walker play off the Western standard to varying degrees, Walker is more direct, not performing a type (other than a version of himself, maybe). For him it’s seemingly a directly personal hole to fill, a performance only to the extent that he doesn’t address the camera and pretends not to notice it. In the interview section of the book, Walker talks about the Terrence Malick film Badlands, another sort of Western, and how he sees that kind of outlaw love getting to a point in the plot (or in the relationship) where it can only exist on the periphery of society, a pure and desperate love within a pure and desolate land, the landscape somehow complicit in the act. Walker’s love for the land, however, is never violent; his pride and vanity never threaten to leave it and return to civilization (or to a prison cell).
In the corners of Walker’s videos we see reminders of the mediation at play: cassette recorders or random instruments waiting to be picked up and set into action, and often he’ll spend a few moments just arranging them in the frame, setting up dramatic anticipation (this is also part of his gesture of love). Even as he performs he makes a point of including these tools within the frame, and we get the strange pleasure of seeing speakers and amps in the desert, or recorders hanging from smoke trees, while we simultaneously hear what’s repeated by them, functioning as creative seams within the scene, which reduce an inclination toward the sentimental. Similar indicators are set-up throughout Walker’s work, staging self-aware viewing distances in tandem with the emotional distances being played out. Walker describes this layering effect as a metal spring, “circling as it moves forwards.”
Although his delivery can be sweet, the absurdity of the tasks he undertakes, combined with tendencies to set himself up for failure and conceal his face (or the land) with obstructions, including photographic representations of the same or other places, serves to ruminate on not just the role of the land in our lives, but also to explore the impossibility of expressing anything in the first place.
Richard T. Walker, in defiance of being here, (Carroll/Fletcher, 2013)
Images: Cover of images from in definace of being here.