These modified instruments all appear as functioning props in the performance, the predicament of always (as we are),which serves as the foundation of the show. Like Walker’s earlier works, this two-channel piece is a music video of sorts, set against arid desert landscapes, this time in White Sands, New Mexico. The video begins with an extended monologue by Walker with his back to the camera speaking into a tape recorder, his Romantic Rückenfigur character waxing philosophical to the surrounding silence, like a lover repeating failed arguments. Clearly frustrated, he traces lines in the white sand and fumbles for words, the awkwardness of his British-accented delivery functioning like Wes Anderson dialog: disarming us with his vulnerability, yet preparing us to accept whatever comes next.
Words, like imperfectly fitted stones, form the edifice of human communication. Yet they often crumble, producing effects other than those we intend. With a profound understanding of that dilemma in mind, the video/performance artist Richard T. Walker seeks a language that won’t crumble, or at least one that in crumbling, better communicates what he has to say.
His exhibition at di Rosa, The Fallibility of Intent, begins by setting a tone, literally: There are seven electric keyboards (with keys held down by rocks and tripod legs), and four electric guitars on stands balanced precariously against each other (or against wall-mounted prints), their necks stripped to single strings with rocks taped to the frets, their bodies chipped and scratched in the places where Walker threw rocks at them to elicit a single note.
Walker’s work is a dip into the sublime with
the pomp knocked out of it, a paper cutout of a mountain held up in reverence. Again, I’m speaking literally; that motif, of the cutout mountaintop, appears throughout the exhibit: in prints, in light boxes, in photographs of prints attached to small stones, and in neon outlines of mountain ridges. It’s as if Walker wants to define sublime as something repeatable: a mountain reduced to a stone that can be placed on a keyboard or thrown at a guitar to create sound. The vision isn’t that of a Romantic, but of a postmodern analyst, taking the worn-down clichés of the 18th and 19th centuries and recasting them as an unwinnable semiotic struggle. When the words recede, he’s still left with wide-open spaces: the yawning incoherence of nature untrammeled.
At the end of his monologue, Walker says: “It would be good to be able to bypass cliché, as valuable as it is,” and then pauses, as if to speak, only to be interrupted by the sound of stones thrown from off-camera striking a guitar. The music crescendos and the image of the guitar gives way to a small etching of a mountaintop held before an actual mountain. On the adjacent channel, Walker, still silent, throws his tape recorder off into the distance, because words are no longer needed.
At that point the music — an exalting, moody mix of electric guitars, airy chanting, keyboards, percussion and xylophone – takes over. The sound-synched images are cut together to form a coherent melody, occasionally interrupted by scenes of silent natural wonder. The open, scrubby landscape and the figure-like musical instruments stand in for Walker’s melancholy, alienation and solitude, and, by extension, our own. It’s the stones, activating the sounds that leave hope for a true communion.
Walker isn’t the only contemporary artist working to redefine the sublime. In the past few years inquiries of this sort have swelled, with museum shows devoted to examining how we relate to nature in an era when it no longer has the power to overwhelm us (as it once did the Romantics), and when the mediated experience of it often substitutes for the real. Oddly, Walker’s mediated re-creation of his own direct experience has the disconcerting effect of reminding us of exactly what it was that set him on this course to begin with: the inability of words to describe what is truly ineffable. Walker, in this not-to-be-missed show, seems to have found answers in this strange, elegiac mix of pictures, music and desert wanderings.
Richard T. Walker: “The Fallibility of Intent” @ di Rosa through April 26, 2015.
About the Author:
Mikko Lautamo is an artist living and working in Sacramento. His work uses programming to create never-repeating loops of digital animations based on social systems, biological entities and interactions. He teaches Electronic Art at Sac State and has exhibited work in Sacramento, Melbourne and online. His work can be viewed on Vimeo.