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Narratives: A Conversation with Una Walker
Ghost in the Machine - 2001. Embroidered
silk, acetate, surveilance camera, and monitor, detail of installation.
met Una Walker a year before her graduation from Ulster Polytechnic, supervising
her thesis and watching her construct a kind of floor sculpture-cum-installation
(Finite and Bounded) at Lombard Street, Belfast. In the tight wires
and exact geometry of this work, which sat at the end of an elongated
room like an altarpiece, I recognized some dominant qualitiesprecise
measurements, pristine materials, and hieratic placement.
Some 40 installations
later, these qualities remain, grounding and guiding the informal, responsive,
and intuitive elements of her works, which are rooted in childhood memories,
military history, architecture, prehistoric sites, colonization, the place
of the church in a modern socity, the agricultural year, and rituals,
mainly those connected with death, burials, and seasons. Themes connected
to the occupation of a territory and everyday life during the Troubles
are interconnected with her sensitive examination of two opposing tendencies:
institutions abiding tendency to reinforce themselves and individuals
tendency to disappear. Some of her installations embrace a feminist agenda
and question the traditional role of women in rural Ireland. Increasingly,
her visually elegant work has been imbued with irrational emotions, radiating
from objects, natural materials, verbal elements, video, and interactive
Of Surveiller, Walkers
recent installation for Golden Thread Gallery, Becky Shaw writes: Walker
is an amasser of information and a controller of data.
You graduated in 1977 and moved from Northern Ireland to North Wales
for a year. Did the move matter to your thinking about being an artist?
Una Walker: Support structures for the visual arts were very underdeveloped
in Belfast and Northern Ireland at that time, and opportunities for recent
graduates were limited. We lived near the university town of Bangor in
Wales, which had a theater with an exhibition space where I had my first
solo show. In retrospect, I would say that this helped to build my image
of myself as an artist, which is very important for a young artist. It
was also good to have a break from the political situation in Northern
Ireland, although experiencing a more normal environment drew my attention
to our abnormal situation. I think this had a bearing on my later work.
Much later, I was commissioned by Artworks Wales to make a temporary installation
in Bangor Cathedral.
and Change, 1994. Mixed media, detail of installation at Bangor
Cathedral, North Wales.
Two London exhibitions in the 70s addressed the question of how
to be a sculptorthe Silver Jubilee Exhibition at Battersea Park
(1977) and The Condition of Sculpture at the Hayward Gallery
(1975). William Tucker invited 41 sculptors who appeared consciously
or intuitively to accept
the persistence of sculpture in the face
of avant-garde theory and the lack
of serious economic support.
Did any of this have a bearing on your move from sculpture to installation?
UW: The fine art department in Belfast was divided into painting,
sculpture, and printmaking. However, many undergraduates in sculpture
were making conceptual art. We were aware of art being produced elsewhere
through publications, rare visits to London or other European cities,
and directly from visiting artists. An extraordinary series of artists
visited the department, including Kenneth Martin, Terry Atkinson, Michael
Craig-Martin, and Joseph Beuys. There were few opportunities to see contemporary
art in Belfast. In 1974 a number of galleries were bombed, adding to a
sense that art was something that happened elsewhere.
My work for
the BA degree was mostly formal and minimal. I was investigating platonic
solids, drawing them and then re-presenting the distorted results as quite
fragile three-dimensional constructions. I switched to installations while
preparing my degree show. The change was influenced by a number of factors,
including exhibitions like Art into Society at the ICA in
SS: You shared a faithfulness to geometry and formal order with
Minimalism. Your materials and construction also had roots in works like
Phillip Kings Call or Span (1967), in which he decentralized the
object to focus on the way and degree in which visual art is a part of
evolving consciousness. How did you support your new art practice?
UW: I saw
Kings work in Belfast in early 1975. Later that year in Paris, the
work of Sol LeWitt impressed me deeply. I remember stepping inside one
of his large freestanding skeletal cubes and feeling exhilarated by being
in that space. I recently read that conceptual artists who used mathematics
had no real interest in it, but I do. Mathematics is the language used
by physicists to describe the universe; it is both precise and metaphoric.
I am attracted to the illusion it can give of truth.
When I started using
natural materials, many were freely available to me in the countryside
around my home. This made tackling large-scale work possible, even with
very little financial support. In the early 80s, I did some theater
design and illustration to earn money.
to a Far Country, 1987. Mixed media, detail of installation
at AIR Gallery, London
SS: From 1982 to 87 feminist concerns were surfacing in
your work. To ask a discontinuous gathered constellation of forms to make
social and political references convincingly amounts to a strong belief
in the power of the visual. Which of your installations between 1984 and
1987 do you think does that best?
UW: All of
these installations explored universal themes; some, like Crannog (1985),
put more stress on themes associated with women. All included references
to rituals surrounding death derived from folk stories and myths
or from archaeological evidence. During this period, there was much discussion
about whether a distinctive Irish art existed. It was also a time when
the position of women in Ireland was intensely debated. These debates
were held against the background of continuing civil disturbances, and
violent death was an everyday occurrence. Harvest (1986), which
was made for the show Women on Women, reflected these concerns,
though humor was also built into it. Journey to a Far Country (1987)
wasliterally and figurativelya dark piece. At the time, I
felt it was the work in which my intentions were most successfully realized.
The Ties that
Bind (198889) arose from a deliberate plan to make a series
of related works in different parts of Ireland. This involved a full year
of planning, traveling, and working. The venues included a windy hillside
near the center of Ireland, a gallery in Cork on the south coast, and
a shop window in Derry on the north coast. I concentrated on the dichotomy
between the powerful role that women played in Irish myths, as warriors
and creators, and their powerlessness, even over their own fertility,
in historical time. As my practice evolved, I realized that in making
each work, further questions arose and prompted the next piece. I often
make a series over a five-year period. However, I am happier to let this
evolve at its own pace rather than fit a predetermined pattern.
SS: Could you illustrate the relationship between the predetermined
and the evolving?
UW: My working practice usually involves a period of researchreading
around a subject and following leads that seem interesting, makingexcessive
notes, and jotting down ideas. Making an installation also includes thinking
about the possibilities of the location, the budget, and the time available
for making the work in situ.
to Provide for War in Time of Peace, 1995. Mixed media, view
installation at the Old Military Brracks, Roscommon, Ireland.
The Ties that
Bind illustrates this well. I visited the site at Annaghmakerrig a
few months before the work was to begin. I decided then to work on a long,
low, tree-covered hill, which had a prehistoric burial mound at one end.
I planned a two-part work, on either end of the hill, reflecting rituals
and folk customs associated with Beltaine, May 1, the date of completion.
When I arrived to make it, most of the trees, except those on the burial
mound, had been cut down. The area looked devastated. However, the removal
of the trees revealed a bank and ditch that enclosed the hill and burial
mound. This prompted me to link the planned and the actual sites by tying
red ribbons to bushes around the enclosure. This refers both to the custom
of tying ribbons or rowan-berries to livestock before they were driven
to summer pastures and to marking the boundaries with burning torches
on Beltaine night.
Watercolor and collage.
SS: Artists and critics alike are fond of considering boundariesthey
think of pushing, extending, crossing over, and blurring. How do you address
such concerns in conjunction with your aim to increase the participation
of the random viewer?
UW: Working in
non-art spaces may have the effect of both pushing the boundaries of art
practice and bringing down the barriers experienced by the audience. In
1990, I was commissioned by Dublin Airport to make a work beside the entrance
to the departure gates. I used peat, branches, tree-bark, and broken crockerynot
materials associated with the high-tech airport environment. Fragments
was part of an arts festival, so some people were visiting the airport to
look at art, others were just passing by. I wished to bring these two groups
together. Through the media, the viewers were asked to bring a piece
of broken crockery and to fill out a card with information about its origins.
The fragments and information were pinned to the wall, and the travelers
were invited to take them, leaving the name of their destination on an information
card. During the research, I had found some fragments of crockery buried
in the airport grounds. Although the airport is officially known as Dublin
Airport, some people still refer to it as Collinstown,
the name of the rural area, or town land, on which it was built. The cards
left on the wall linked the very particularIrish place names and personal
storiesto the globalthe worldwide destinations of the travelers.
Making installations also
provides opportunities to play around with other boundaries. By making
full use of a space or creating a space-within-a-space, viewers can move
about and within the artwork. Prototype (1999) is my most complex
example of this; its a series of corridors that I built in an aircraft
hangar for viewers to walk through.
Eliptical Narratives and Circular Journeys, 1998. Mixed media,
installation at the Temple Bar Galleries, Dublin.
SS: In 1995,
you entered the international scene as the president of the International
Association of Artists, and you began to focus on exploring military history,
which became your subject matter for some seven installations over the next
four years. Was this subject connected to the Troubles?
UW: Yes, these works are connected to the Northern Ireland situation,
rather than being about it. The cease-fires of 1994 had a
profound effect on everyone here. We had been living for almost 30 years
in a war zone. Life was simultaneously normal and abnormal.
Every detail of daily life was affectedfrom the trivial, like accepting
that you had your bags searched before being allowed into high street
shops, to the constant worry about the safety of family and friends. The
war zone was not a defined front lineit was everywhere. Unfortunately
this is now becoming a common experience.
works such as Patterns of Survival (1992) and To Every Cow Its
Calf (1994), I had developed an interest in the built environment.
I used military architecture as a way to explore warfare, looking at 16th-
to 18th-century instruction manuals and books of plans for building fortifications.
These European and American manuals present war in a theoretical, logical
way and refer to it as an art.
I was attracted to
the geometry of the fortifications and their idealized forms. In the first
three installationsHow to Provide for War in Time of Peace
(1995), Extracts from the Golden Treasury on the Art of Making War
Part 1 (1995), and Part 2 (1996)I drew plans of a star-fort
in charcoal directly onto the gallery walls. The first of these was made
in an old military barracks in Roscommon in Ireland. I later worked in
a bastion on the fortified island of Suomenlinna, in Finland (Naming
of Parts, 1998). I also embroidered cannons and guns on fabric stretched
in round frames. Like the idealized fortification plans, these diagrammatic
guns were just symbols. The Web site work Metaphor is the Key (2000),
which explored the history of warfare and computing and how computers
are used in cryptography and information warfare, was the final work of
the military series.
2004. Mixed media, installation
at the Golden thread Gallery, Belfast.
2000, you began to focus on memory instead of history. You also increased
your use of texts and initiated a collaboration with Peter Richards. A
year later you added video. What brought about these changes?
UW: These things
emerged gradually. I had included text in Elliptical Narratives and
Circular Journeys (1998), an installation at Temple Bar Galleries
in Dublin. I was working on three floors and used texts from three related
sources connected to my residency at the island fortress of Suomenlinna
in 1997. One group of texts was from my notes on Suomenlinnas history;
others were extracts from my diary concerning my research for a UNESCO
document on artists work environments; the third text was an extract
examining the nature of artists work from the finished
document. I also used text in Naming of Parts (1998). Two slidesequences
were projected simultaneously: one group consisted of portraits of students
from the Fine Art Academy in Helsinki, and the other sequence included
the names of the individual parts of an 18th-century cannon. This was
a collaboration with one of the students, Hanna-Maria Antilla.
In 1999 I was awarded
a commission by the Institute of International Visual Art, London, for
a Web-based work. I invited Peter Richards, an artist and lately also
a gallery director, to collaborate with me. The Web site Metaphor is
the Key contains groups of overlapping texts. The images are from
one of the 18th-century military training manuals. For the rest of that
year I was exploring ideas for an installation, The Ghost in the Machine,
which was shown at the beginning of 2001. Working
on the Web site prompted me to think about the wider implications of hyperspace,
and how we, as human beings, have had to adapt. I started to read about
brain function, the mechanics of the working brain and how it processes
information about the world. Later in the year, I worked with an organization
based in England called PVA Labculture and made a short video using ideas
about brain function and memory. These ideas were further developed in
a series of five short audio-visual works with the collective title Corpus
SS: Through residencies and artists exchanges your work
became known in other countries, for example, Iceland. Would you have
liked more of such opportunities?
UW: The site-specific nature of my installations means that I do
not have a product that can be easily toured to other venues.
There are disadvantagesfor instance, my work has never been included
in the touring group shows occasionally organized by the Northern Ireland
Arts Councilthe advantage, on the other hand, has been the travel
to venues. My first opportunity to do this was in 1986 when I took part
in an exhibition in Turin in Italy. I have also exhibited at IAA events
in Korea and Australia, as well as in Germany, Spain, and Poland and in
many locations in Ireland and Great Britain.
In 1993, I spent
six weeks at the Vermont Studio Center just drawing. This was a very fruitful
period for me. Although I wasnt making any three-dimensional work,
the experimentation in the drawings fed directly into the installation
From the Attic of the Empire, which I made a few months later in
Berlin. Similarly the residency in Helsinki in 1997 resulted in Elliptical
Narratives and Circular Journeys in Dublin a year later. My next planned
residency is in Lodz in Poland.
2004. Mixed media, installation at the Golden
thread Gallery, Belfast.
recent Surveiller uses text.
UW: For Surveiller, I built a database of visual art exhibitions
held in Belfast from 1968 to 2001, the period of the Troubles. This information
was screen-printed onto Perspex panels, one for each year, and mounted
along one wall of the gallery. The panels were of a uniform width, but
their height depended on the number of entries, the number of exhibitions,
for each year. The visual effect was like an audio wave-form. I had not
expected any direct correlation between art activity and the political
events in Northern Ireland, but the finished work did seem to indicate
a relationship. At times art activities were curtailed simply because
galleries were being bombed, but there also appears to be a more complex
relationship between the number of art events and the advancement of political
There were other
elements to the installation in addition to the panels. An officewith
table, chair, computer, and filing cabinetwas set up behind a wall
at one end of the gallery. The information from the database was available
in a searchable form on the computer. Visitors could search the database,
but as they did so they were picked up by a surveillance camera, which
transmitted images to a monitor mounted on the wall just inside the door
of the gallery. I mentioned earlier the abnormality of our lives here,
and constant surveillance was a fact of life. I had to do a considerable
amount of research to collect the information for the database, and I
always anticipated presenting the outcome as part of artwork. But some
people, even in the art world, had difficulty with this.
Slavka Sverakova is an Honorary Research Fellow, University of Ulster.
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