Interview with Richard T. Walker

Aesthetica speaks to the video-artist, photographer, sculptor and musician, Richard T. Walker about his first survey exhibition in the UK. Taking place at Carroll/Fletcher the presentation includes a selection of new and recent works that offer a compelling view of landscapes, primarily of the American West where Walker has lived for the last 6 years. Entitled, in defiance of being here, the show will run until 13 April and explores the attraction both the viewer and the artist feels towards such moving scenery.

A: You were born in Britain but live in America, how has this influenced your practice?
RTW: Living in America has influenced my practice quite a lot, on a number of levels – it proved a strong influence on my work before I had even visited. As long as I can recall I have found the landscape of the USA particularly compelling. This was primarily initiated by an interest in its representation on film and the role it played in building upon the characteristics within a given story. I was intrigued by how the landscape seemed to adopt the role of metaphor and symbol, moving stories in ways that seemed to speak to something larger than the given context. It added drama in very particular ways that came to seem quintessentially American.

The work I was making before I moved here was in response to this. I was attempting to articulate a relationship that I had (or didn’t have) to the British landscape that was guided through thoughts and associations with these landscapes on film. It was a coming together of varying ideologies and meditations on what these spaces meant and what they stood for in terms of how they became platforms to talk about language and the perception of relationships through language. I was exercising a process of thought that was influenced by a confluence of American film and 19 Century European Romanticism.

After some time I wanted to pull together a fantastical understanding I had of what these spaces were with an actual physical experience. So I visited the South West and California with an anticipation that I would be almost let down by the landscape. For me this was about the failure of anticipation. I wanted to create a broken moment, a situation where the preconceived understanding of an experience was exposed for what it was, and the fantasy that built it was made explicit and vulnerable. I find melancholy a particularly fascinating place; the nature of lack, of not having but needing, is a really potent creative destination.

To some extent this happened, but fantasy managed to retain its position within the hierarchy of my experience, due to the fact that the spaces were just so amazing. They exceeded what I thought they would or could be. The vastness and bigness of everything made an impact that was really significant and continues to be so today. They consumed all my expectations and repeatedly gave them back to me to use again and again.

So living here, especially being based in California means that I have easy access to these spaces, which has meant that my work has become very much engaged with them. I am still dealing with the complications of what it means for me to be there and contend with them as a subject. I am interested now in how the metaphor continues to shift, but I am also very aware of the lineage of art that has been made in, on and about the west, something that I have certainly become more aware of since moving here and try to respond to accordingly.

A: The show combines video, photography, performance, sculpture and installation – do these varied mediums perform different roles in the narrative of your work?
RTW: Yes and no. They do but at the same time they all relate and come together to share and exchange roles. Saying this however, there are particular characteristics to each that can sometimes determine what ends up being produced; an idea may originate as a video but once I have filmed it, the fluidity and the way it works with time can sometimes seem antithetical to the underpinning ideas that I am working with. It is often about how the idea works with language, be it visual, through text or dialogue. I think language and time act as axes in the work from which everything is pulling away or pushing towards, and part of finding equilibrium is recognizing the relationship each medium has to the push or the pull. Music is interesting here because it acts a little differently and is probably why I use it. To me music transcends some of the ideals I associate with the varying mediums mentioned. It is both its own thing but is also able to adopt and accept different positions without compromising what it is. I am fascinated by how music does this, how it operates in terms of creating a sense of place, be this within history and memory, as an understanding of now or a sense of the future. It unabashedly accommodates fantasy, seamlessly providing meaning, but not just meaning, but what it is to actually mean something, the meaning of meaning perhaps. To me it seems to embody relevance.

A: Your work often focuses on dramatic landscapes. Can you talk about your work in relation to the sublime?
RTW: Varying ideas of the sublime thread in and out of my work. Many of the ideas I work with are a result of thinking about the sublime in one manifestation or another. If a figure in a landscape can be a visual metaphor for inescapable singularity then the sublime seems to me to be an attempt to redeem this status through intellectual means. I am fascinated by the moments of resistance where articulated thoughts collide with ineffable feelings. My recent work has been about finding strategies that attempt to unite these opposing attributes of experience. Two places where this collision seems to happen is either alone in nature, particularly vast unpopulated expanses of what is considered wilderness, or with someone you love intimately, where you are confronted by feelings that appear to step outside the reality of a given moment. It seems to me that these two situations encourage a micro and macro delineation of self that in many ways relate to the sublime. The first is an actual landscape mirrored by an internal landscape, making apparent the vastness of what it means to exist, to have consciousness, to be matter in a world. The other is the tightening up of a visceral acknowledgement of existence beyond that which we can assimilate into language, which seems to provide the possibility of an experience outside of singularity, caused by a decomposition of language-based reality.

A: You are often placed within your work, how much are your works confessional or constructed narratives?
RTW: I’d say they are constructed narratives based on confessional responses to fabricated situations. They weave in and out of being faithful representations of true feelings and responses. To some extent the character in my work is a caricature of an imagined idea I have of myself that has been tweaked and reworked to exhibit a response that provides an entry point into each piece.

The construction of the narrative is partly based on establishing relationships between the reality of being a figure in a place responding to an environment, and then further responding to that response. But this is complicated by the fact that everything is set up for filming, so a sequence of overlaps occur between the reality and the fabrication of a situation, whereby each interplay and inform one another.

A lot of my work proposes a dialogue between landscape and figure that is problematic for the protagonist, who is often tied up in an existential conundrum that he is trying to overcome. This is in part a fabrication but is also reflective of the act of making the work and actually being in the space. I am always alone when I produce my videos, often in expanses of desert miles from civilization with a car full of equipment. I traverse the landscape in search for film locations that bare some resemblance to specific places that I have storyboarded in my imagination. It becomes a quest for something almost impossible that actualizes a particular relationship to the landscape, which in itself is quite angst ridden, and can’t help but inform the content and tone of the work.

A: As part of the exhibition there will also be live performance, how does this change the dynamics of your work and its audience?
RTW: There is a strong performative element throughout my practice, so it seemed logical to interpret ideas through actual live performance. The way performance speaks to time differently and proposes a shift in perspective has become very important to my understanding of what I do. It is a way of re-articulating and emphasizing certain attributes that already exist. The notion of a character, an idea of image and the role of music all become more explicit. It is as if they become italicized phrases in a paragraph. Their meaning stays the same but it reaches out and asks questions of itself in a different way. Ultimately it is about engagement and creating a relationship with an audience that goes beyond the screen/viewer dynamic and steps into a more reciprocal and relational series of exchanges.

Performance feels more conversational to me; the varying parts involved become destablised, which then allows space for fluidity and movement to occur. Having a figure in a room who is addressing a screen puts an accent on what is presented on the screen. It challenges and questions its significance and its role as an image. As a character in my videos I address the landscape as an image but as a character in my performances I address an image of “a landscape as an image”. It is like opening up a concertina of references, trying to capture the moment before the folds are forced back together and collapse to form a sound.

When I am in a landscape I become fascinated by my ability to feel so separate from it and how I am conditioned to see such spaces in certain ways. To me this seems quite tragic because I see it as an example of how we relate to the world more generally and also to each other. We think our desire is to be connected in order to resolve the fate of being alone, but I think that we desire to desire to be connected. This is because we understand that to lose such autonomy, which would be to lose our sense of self, would be catastrophic, perhaps blissfully so, but catastrophic nonetheless for we wouldn’t exist in a world as we know it.

Richard T. Walker: in defiance of being here, until 13 April, Carroll/Fletcher, 56 – 57 Eastcastle St, London, W1W 8EQ.


All images courtesy of Carroll/Fletcher and Richard T. Walker.
1. Outside of All Things,
2. Let This Be Us,
3. Let This Be Us,