Ode to the limitations of language: Richard T. Walker’s ‘the predicament of always (as we are)’
A lone figure paces across an expanse of white sand that carries on into the distance, talking into a cassette player. “There are these moments, these gestures that are intangible, very slippery,” he says. He grasps at an elusive idea, failing to capture it with words.
These are the opening moments of “the predicament of always (as we are),” a new exhibit at the ASU Art Museum by Richard T. Walker.
Six months ago, the U.K.-born artist left his San Francisco home for the lonesome deserts of California, Texas and Arizona to gather footage and sound bites for what would become a multi-sensory exploration into the limitations of language and the sublime awe of the desert landscapes we call home.
In San Francisco, Walker met Julio Morales, the visual arts curator at the museum, who would help bring his work to ASU. Morales was working as the curator for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco when he was drawn to Walker’s unique outlook on landscapes and decided to bring him onboard for an exhibition called "Bay Area Now" in 2011.
For the fall 2014 season at the ASU Art Museum, Morales again tapped the work of Walker to complement the other exhibits that he said “deal or reflect current cultural conditions of a desert landscape, local and international — whether it's a physical or metaphorical to the limits of human connection or disconnection to nature as a background for attempting to understand ourselves."
The struggles of human connection — both with one another and the landscape — are the core of Walker’s exhibit and are accentuated in the side-by-side projections that dominate the southern wall of the gallery. For the first several minutes of the video, the projection at right passes through static shots of empty desert. At left, Walker paces across a surreal expanse of white sand as he vocalizes the existential malaise of the impassable gap between individuals and nature, as well as each other.
“There’s this sort of frustration in a relationship of wanting to be closer or wanting something that you can’t quite get to," he said. "No matter how close you are, you’re always separate, and somehow speaking and talking were illustrative of that fact because of the limitations of language."
Taking those ideas, Walker began to feel the same way with regards to landscapes — alienated and separate.
“I found that the language of those things really overlapped and fell into one another,” he said.
As the video continues, Walker seems to become frustrated with the insufficiency of words, eventually just throwing the cassette player he’s been speaking into across the white sand, giving up altogether on words.
From here, the installation transcends the limitations of language and relies on music to pay tribute to the sublime desert landscapes. Walker stages musical instruments inside the frames of these vistas and utilizes rocks — balanced on a keyboard or tossed onto a one-string guitar — to formulate an incredibly complex composition that exists somewhere between the ambient music of Brian Eno and a gentler post-rock.
For such a complicated composition, it comes as a relative shock that Walker is not formally trained in music — he was only in a few bands as a teenager.
“I’ve just always dabbled," he said. "I don’t know when I started playing the guitar, but it’s always been an intuitive practice."
Video has always been his favorite medium, as it is a composite of photography, performance and music. This sense of the performative gesture is central to Walker’s attempts to capture something — of trying to understand an ever-elusive idea.
“It’s being in a space and trying to attain an understanding that feels just out of reach, trying to grasp some sort of comprehension that isn’t quite there but is sometimes a little bit,” he said.
In the past, Walker has worked predominantly with video installations, but for “the predicament of always (as we are),” Morales pushed Walker to consider the entire space of the gallery. "Sort of pulling things out of the video into the real space, so you can build a relationship between the time-based space inherent in a flat screen and this kind of physical space here in the gallery,” Walker said.
The objects that fill the gallery — which range from Casiotone keyboards framed with white neon strips in the shape of the outlines of mountaintops to Squire Telecaster guitars posed on tripods — help envelop visitors into the transcendental space captured within the video as well as offer a multiplicity of ways to perceive and relate to the landscapes of the southwest.
While it’s basically impossible to distill the essence of an experience into words or to bridge the chasm between two individuals, it’s in the fumbled attempts and blind grasping that transformative art, like Walker’s, is born. Video, music and language become tools of communication between the artist and the viewer.
The exhibit is all, of course, quite difficult to put into words. The limitations of language are, after all, the main source of frustration and inspiration for Walker’s exhibit.
“I see words as these sort of clunky blocks of wood, with these gaps in between, and those gaps are where it sort of lacks, where it’s frustrated. Then, you’ve got music — and music is like a piece of sandpaper smoothing down these clunky blocks," he said. "So you’ve still got gaps. It’s not some smooth, cohesive whole, but it gives you a sense of understanding."
“the predicament of always (as we are)” runs until Jan. 3.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @zachariahkaylar.