The Ghost in the Machine, 2001. Embroidered silk, acetate, surveillance camera, and monitor, detail of installation

Elliptical Narratives: A Conversation with Una Walker

I 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 qualities—precise 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 technology.

Of Surveiller, Walker’s recent installation for Golden Thread Gallery, Becky Shaw writes: “Walker is an amasser of information and a controller of data.”

Slavka Sverakova:
 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.

SS: Two London exhibitions in the ’70s addressed the question of how to be a sculptor—the 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?

 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 London.

SS: You shared a faithfulness to geometry and formal order with Minimalism. Your materials and construction also had roots in works like Phillip King’s 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 King’s 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.

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) was—literally and figuratively—a dark piece. At the time, I felt it was the work in which my intentions were most successfully realized.

The Ties that Bind (1988–89) 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 research—reading 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.

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.

SS: Artists and critics alike are fond of considering “boundaries”—they 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 crockery—not 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 particular—Irish place names and personal stories—to the global—the 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; it’s a series of corridors that I built in an aircraft hangar for viewers to walk through.

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?

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 affected—from 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 line—it was everywhere. Unfortunately this is now becoming a common experience.

Through previous 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 installations—How 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.

SS: In 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 Suomenlinna’s 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 Callosum (2003).

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 disadvantages—for instance, my work has never been included in the touring group shows occasionally organized by the Northern Ireland Arts Council—the 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 wasn’t 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.

SS: Your 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 solutions.

There were other elements to the installation in addition to the panels. An office—with table, chair, computer, and filing cabinet—was 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.