Julian Walker

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Lies & Belonging

Catalogue Text

Big grid installations

The big grid installations grew out of the idea of how the acts of collecting and display feed each other, particularly in the field of natural history collecting. Visually these works bring together the power of the very small and the very big. They fill the field of vision in the same way that the collecting obsession fills the mind; and provoke questioning of the appropriateness of scientific collecting where the need to collect in depth threatens the continuity of the subject.

The apparently countless collection is located at the point where obsessive control overlaps with chaotic obsession. The rectangular grid layout has no inherent boundary like collecting it can go on for ever. However the notion of physical and visual excess links chaos to authority, for how can a thing so vast be open to question? In filling the field of vision, in the same way that collecting can fill the mind, it allows no room for anything else.

The influence of obsession in making works of this type creates a link to religious fervour, like the monolithic paintings of Rothko, they cleanse the mind of extraneous thought; yet they operate on a micro-scale, and at a distance that demands faith from the viewer. Labels that are too high to read refer back to vast constructions of the past, e.g. decorations on cathedrals, and the details that are impossible to see (or which are visible only to God). Yet the craft of making the work demands consistency, and the viewer must know that there is no faking.

In having to move between distant viewing and close viewing, the viewer comes to realise that the work exerts physical power.

Inclusion and aspiration

The museum confers immortality the desire to donate to museums is part of our relationship with museums. In creating a hierarchy of worth for objects ("this is so good it belongs in a museum"), we project onto objects a sort of aspiration to belong, and thus to live for ever. In donating to museums we partake of a vicarious immortality.


The point at which Archie Belaney explicitly declared himself to be an Indian came while he was fighting "for King and country" during the First World War. Arthur Smith Woodward's book on the excavation and interpretation of the Piltdown bones was called "The Earliest Englishman". The denunciation of the Hastings Rarities was published in a journal called British Birds. Like it or not we are dealing with a sense of nationalism, a sense of belonging, and, by implication, a notion of exclusion.

Language and Lying

In the sense that language exists to describe what is not there the past, the future, potential concepts, metaphors, stories, images, dreams, questions it exists to tell material absences of reality. In terms of the use of deceit for both selfish and unselfish ends, we are on the same continuum as most primates; but language allows us to lie more effectively.


When all's said and done, what we have from Piltdown are the handful of objects; everything else is the result of human activity.  In all probability we will never know how the objects came to be there; all we can know for certain is that they were there.

Essay by Jim Waters, Curator, Nottingham Castle Museum

Julian Walker's work questions the given idea of knowledge, how things are described, catalogued and interpreted. It seemed, to me, highly appropriate that he has turned his attention to objects that in their own right had done exactly the same thing, whether it be for peer recognition, romantic idealism or a sense of malevolent fun. It is often a wry smile that Walker's work leaves on the viewer with his gentle subversion of scientific authority and how we view and read objects as material things and cultural artefacts.

Objects can evoke a sense of time and place, they can bring the viewer close in spirit to an historic person or event. It is tantalising for us to be near something that was touched by a famous (or, perhaps to a greater degree, infamous) historic figure. For these objects it is their authenticity which gives the cultural value, the history of the object can become more important than the object itself. This was explored by Walker in his installation at the Museum of Mankind, The Real Thing in 1996. There a number of ethnographic objects were specified but not shown, the material displayed comprising their post-acquisition history: that which in Western terms defines their identity, and for the most part relating to their life and new identity within the museum frame. For Walker the interesting thing was that on the face of it the information was talking to us about the object, but in fact it was really telling us about the actions of those charged with its care:

" the hand of someone exercising power over the object is strongly visible, perhaps too visible for one to be able to see the object properly; the narrative of post-acquisition history drowns the narrative of the object as originally intended."

A fake or fraudulent object can sometimes take on more significance or at least notoriety than a bona fide object in human society. Such frauds can achieve infamous status, which seems to make them equally, or more, alluring to the viewer. They are unique objects true one-offs, the viewer may relate more easily to them because they have prior knowledge of the thing and its history through media accounts. But even though they may add to our collective cultural make-up, in scientific terms they have no value, they are meaningless. Yet they still hold an incredible fascination; stamp collectors can be equally excited about finding a famous forgery as a rare, authentic stamp rarity and notoriety are tantalising things for the obsessive collector.

There was a case in the 1970s of an example of the fake object becoming as important as the real thing. It was recorded that in the 17th Century a Scot living in Canada had written home and talked of the wildlife being furried animals and fish . This was read as the fish being furry, which was carried as a myth until fish covered in rabbit fur were actually being made and sold as artefacts. In the 1970s someone had bought one of these furry fish and taken it to the Royal Scottish Museum, where it was declared a hoax and rejected. This led to such a public outcry that the museum had to recreate the hoax and put it on display to satisfy public curiosity.

The idea that the experts might have been duped is also appealing, it gives us all hope that even they can be fallible, even if only for a short time. The natural acceptance of given knowledge can be upset momentarily by the intervention of a forger. In taxidermy circles the argument still rages over the Hastings Rarities, as does the attempt to clear the name of George Bristow. This case had a huge impact on numerous publications which were deemed to contain false information, and which had to be revised.

This is what Julian Walker does in his work, turning our ideas about classification and the reading of objects on its head with his often wry humour. In his recent show at The Yard Gallery, Nottingham, this point was picked up on with great enthusiasm by some colleagues in documentation. His rows of identical specimens with identical labels struck a real chord with those who often have to spend hours inputting such information on databases. This work in Walking on Eggshells at Nottingham featured rows of identical stamps, each labelled with the place and time they were bought, many at the same place at the same time, this quasi-scientific categorisation gave the work its authority. On the other hand the large installation in the gallery had 6004 sharks teeth in a 10 metre grid on the wall, each one labelled with a character name from the Bible; in this case it is the huge scale of the work, that could barely be held within the field of human vision within the gallery space, and the improbability of such pointless commitment, that gives the work its authority.

When we put something in a glass case or display it for public acknowledgement we give it an authority this object is significant so we (the keepers) will protect it, but you (the viewer) may view it at a distance. Walker subverts this authority and questions why we do it, and who decides why it is important sometimes the empty case can have as much resonance as the object itself it can certainly lead to more questions being posed about the nature and make up of the object. The viewer must also accept that the object in the case is what the accepted authority says it is, which implies that the viewer has in turn given it their own stamp of authority. Again in Walking on Eggshells, Walker turned the glass display on its head, constructing a 5 metre glass walkway in the gallery containing birds' eggs from the natural history collection at Wollaton Hall. Here, not only was the viewer asked to walk on the artwork, but also on the glass case holding museum collections - what irreverence! The impact was fascinating to watch, people hesitating to walk on it, partly because they did not know if it was safe, partly because they did not know if they should or were allowed to. It was nearly always their children who led the way.

The emphasis is on you can look, but you cannot touch, and there is a real divide between the viewer and curator in how much access is given to an object. It always interests me when installing an exhibition that often the artist will unload the work from the back of a car or van, sometimes wrapped, sometimes not, but as soon as the artwork crosses the gallery threshold it is somehow altered. It becomes an object that can only be touched by certain people under certain conditions. The artist can still touch the work as much as he or she likes, and still have full access, the curator touches under certain conditions with slightly less access, but the viewer cannot touch at all. The more public exposure the objects are given the more reverential treatment they are given. However, as a buyer I also took a piece of Walkers work home, and once in my personal possession I dispensed with the cotton gloves as I fixed it to my wall, even though I now owned the object I treated it with less care than when it was in the gallery space.

The work in this current exhibition by Julian Walker seems to bring all these issues together. The objects he has made are obviously fakes of fakes, useless in practical terms (paper spearheads, an axe-blade made from feathers) but rich in association and cultural heritage. The artworks have now become the revered object, set within their glass case in the hallowed museum space. To accord such reverence to a proven fake seems on the face of it bizarre, but the frauds say as much about us as a species as the real objects the perfect subject matter for the application of Walker's dry wit.






9 JULY 22 OCTOBER 2000



The starting point for the works in this exhibition is the idea that natural history specimens have more than one identity; an identity that derives from their state as one of a kind of animal, plant, fossil, etc., and a different composite identity as cultural objects.

To explore this concept I have compressed and shifted together the objects of a natural history collection with the experience of various aspects of contemporary activity within western culture : keeping pets, walking in the park, shopping, looking at paintings or old toys, stamp-collecting, browsing through encyclopaedias, remembering Bible stories, picking things up on the beach.

The works operate through a system of altered taxonomy (the process of classifying objects) and shifting languages the language of collecting applied to the experience of religion, the well-used phrase turned into a live experience, the name of the individual applied to an unidentifiable animal. The experience of collecting, naming and knowing is pushed to the point where it is revealed as being less about the object of study than about the position of the person doing the looking.


For many of us, close observation of what we may consider the more exciting (probably because more inaccessible) products of the natural environment only occurs in zoos and the natural history sections of museums, both of which provide a problematic experience, an experience made special by its otherness from our usual experience. The zoos delicate and uncomfortable balance between entertainment, conservation and captivity; the museum with its often quiet and obscure room of natural history specimens, looking often rather sad, doomed to appear old-fashioned, and sometimes projecting an air of reproach.

How do we match the fascination of the live animal and the undesirability of the dead one, with the acts of desire that mark our feelings towards the natural world as a fund of collectibles? Egg-stealing attracts staggering fines, yet it still goes on, presumably because the rewards of supply or ownership outweigh the threat of punishment. When we consider a stuffed carp caught in 1912 and mounted in a bow-fronted glass case, we are dealing with an object valued at the same level as a 17th Century helmet or a large Clarice Cliff bowl; but also we may think about how desire is created from the raw material of a dead fish.

There is obviously a cultural aspect of social status. The stags head mounted on a shield implies a certain kind of leisure activity pertaining to a recognisable social class, presumably now a couple of generations back; a stuffed duck or reptile hints at a family history of scientific enquiry. Its not difficult to buy this stuff. Who are we trying to convince? Or do we invent ourselves, give ourselves a new subheading every time we go shopping?



Walking On Eggshells comes from many sources. The realisation that our most frequent physical contact with the natural environment is via our feet. The questions that occurred to me: has anyone ever actually walked on eggshells, and if so under what circumstances, and why? The fact that it is only possible to make work with birds eggs in a Natural History Museum, unless you are prepared to stick to goose, duck, chicken and quail eggs. There is also the reference to the fossil record that lies beneath us.

A common experience while making artwork: what you think the work is about when you start making it is different from what you think it is about when it is finished. Often the process of making is as much a process of finding out.

Both Walking on Eggshells and Counting were made specially for this exhibition. It was only through the process of making the work that I was able to observe how my handwriting changed, how this was evidenced in strata, which rather than being uniformly level, looked as if they had undergone some geological tilting.



Counting: a millennial work. The number and identity of the specimens refers to the calculation made by means of genealogy by Archbishop James Ussher in 1650 of the date of the creation of the earth: 4,004 BC. This calculation was made at a point when stirrings of doubt of the veracity of such an idea were being supported by a scientific approach by Hooke, Sloane, Steno, and others. The first systematic geological and palaeontological exploration of a section of the British Isles (A Natural History of Staffordshire, by Robert Plot, 1686) and the first published proposal of an organic origin for fossils, by Nicolaus Steno in 1669, thus occur within the same generation as an equally systematic calculation of the age of the earth using Biblical evidence.

Visually, this work carries on from previous works of this kind which bring together the power of the very small and the very big. These works attempt to fill the field of vision in the same way that the collecting obsession fills the mind; and provoke questioning of the appropriateness of scientific collecting where the need to collect in depth threatens the continuity of the subject. The apparently countless collection is located at the point where obsessive control overlaps with chaotic obsession. The biblical names propose an undercurrent of narrative, and a slippage in the act of naming; the obviously mistaken taxonomy is given the potential for acceptance by the authoritative language of the museum collection.

The installation uses the evidence of palaeontological prehistory to express an idea that stands outside the current scientific structure of knowledge, though since the introduction of cladistics as an alternative form of taxonomy based on similarities across the whole range of living things, this structure has been thrown open to wider debate. Historically the two fields of belief, religion and science, have used doubt as a weapon against the other, yet both appear to use faith and enquiry; while science works through a process of proving a hypothesis, it seems that faith is increasingly dependent on the application of archaeology. While James Usshers calculation is patently unscientific and arbitrary, we still depend for our calculation of time on a biblical event which we never tire of trying to prove; and while evolutionary science and creationism may seem polarised into terms of wrong and right, both are widely regarded as unprovable.

"Describing" is the term used to identify a species by a particular name; for many of the Biblical characters in this work I have use a generic rather than an individual name.

The need to distinguish variation from species requires collecting in depth, which in turn feeds a particular kind of storage and display in which number takes on a power of its own. The question of distinguishing variation from species can only be totally answered by collecting all the specimens of a species, and every collection within the natural world, however large, must fail; but in visual terms, the greater the collection the greater the beauty of the failure, since thus the more nearly the collection becomes a metaphor for infinity.

In 1667 Nicolaus Steno published Canis carcariae dissectum caput, "Dissected Head of a Dogfish", in which he concluded certain tongue-shaped objects found in the geological strata of Malta were the teeth of sharks; he proposed that their remains had been buried beneath the sea floor and later raised above the water to their current sites. Two years later he published an account of the geology of solid bodies within solid bodies, which included a proposed organic origin of fossils.


Shepherds Purse and Devils Toenail; the folk-names for fossils that precede the scientific names micraster or gryphaea, yet which are descriptive or based on a physical similarity to something existing (as were many of Linnaeuss names), and are specific to particular kinds of objects. And more than this, they show an attempt to locate the object culturally. Before science, these objects had a place in a concept of the world, a place that shows them being seen as products of a narrative.


The Names of Animals; the names derive from sporting history, literature, mythology, history, film, toys; this alone shows how diverse is the range of our ability to draw animals into our culture.

Why is it appropriate to name some specific specimens of animal, and not others? Presumably it is dependent on the degree to which we allow them to take a place in our culture for purposes of sport, study, entertainment, food, or domestic companionship. The fluctuating degree of distance

(the most recently discovered Tyrannosaurus rex specimen is called Sue) shows us in the act of locating the boundary with the other, that which is alien to us. How do we know where the edge of appropriateness lies? How do we locate where the notion of "we" stops?




The experience of the natural world as a holistic environment, an ecosystem, or simply a system of interlocking and interdependent movements, is not easy. It requires work which may not show immediate results; the view that sees a number of discrete entities demands less work, and allows us easily to extract for study and contemplation. It allows removal without responsibility for the space left behind. It is a view that ultimately must derive from hunting and gathering, which we may assume precedes agriculture in the general development of cultures (the Bible gives this idea in the story of Esau and Jacob).


The division of the world into discrete units allows us to take apart what we see, to break it down into comprehensible units and then build it up again. Thus we separate the world into countries, specimens, families, tales, items, collectibles. It is a process of knowing, knowing the systems of knowing, and knowing that we know.


Using the Bible: I suppose I feel it underlies the culture that I am operating within, in the same way that the fossil record underlies the natural world I live in. It was for this reason that I chose to use the King James Version. When I came to make the works using cultural data from the Bible I started with the idea that there were a vast number of Biblical stories that were the subjects of Western art, and that the Bible was full of well-known stories. In both cases I was proved wrong; Western visual art largely limits itself to some two dozen anecdotes which are repeated and repeated; and after reading the Bible in its entirety, looking for stories and memorable ideas, the sort of thing that I went reluctantly to Sunday School to hear, I found there were far fewer than I had thought. What did strike me was the amount of death, the vast numbers of slain and smitten; numbers that must be exaggerated or civilisation could not have sustained itself. This great history of death inevitably mirrors the fossil record; and several of the names of tribes or groups of people in the Old Testament sound uncannily like names of fossils.


In making the two works Discrete Events (stories) and Described Events (paintings), as well as Counting, I became aware that these names, labels, titles, whatever, apply equally to the biblical events, and to the representations of those events. Some of them sound more familiar as quasi chapter headings from B-movie westerns (The Tabernacle at Shiloh, Jephthahs Daughter), and the Old Testament must surely be a favourite fund of ideas for names in science-fiction. In a sense then we experience our own culture vicariously, as a stratified system of quotations, allusions and references.


Animal Viewed: I know several people who cant bear stuffed animals. For me its a case of delight at the visual pleasure sitting uncomfortably with the (untutored) worry that the preservatives used must be poisonous, and the basic fear that a dead animal must be crawling with bugs. At a different level there is the notion of the preserved animal as both itself and a representation of itself.

How to combine this whole area with the altogether distinct experience of seeing animals? Does the museum case propose an absurd view while it allows an otherwise impossible one? The last squirrel I saw was in a tree, as squirrels tend to be. Starting from these ideas I have looked for a point between the gaze of the human eye and that of the animal eye. These views preserve primarily the view, secondarily the animal.


Cabinets of Curiosity: note the singular. Cabinets of curiosities flourished in the 16th to 18th centuries (the point where natural history and palaeontology move from observed phenomena used in popular and "high" culture to being observed for empirical research). Many of them formed the basis of museum collections (Hans Sloane bought an awful lot of "curious" rubbish). They imply in their display of marvels and oddities a belief in a universe ordered by God. It is the nature of the extraordinary to show, by being beyond the ordinary in form or rarity, the order and boundary of the ordinary. This indication of what is by the display of what is not mirrors the act of hiding integral to every form of display (cropping, framing, selecting, etc.) The controlled and directed view of the collection may highlight one view of the object at the cost of others, for example form without function, variety and similarity at the cost of action or feeling, or the desirability of the fashioned object but not the human or environmental results of its production. And by being put on display at all, some objects, like human remains, spiders, or early medical instruments, may provoke simultaneously a desire to look and a desire that the object should be hidden.



Perhaps part of the desirability of natural history objects is the ease with which they sit within the structures of collecting. These seem to be so "right" that it appears as if the infrastructure existed before the choice of objects to apply it to. Does this apparent complicity in their own removal into our choice of environment make the objects more desirable? Does it go towards an explanation for the apparent melancholy that surrounds the collected dead?


Very large collections are built up from repeated acts of smallness, treasuries of tiny objects that can extend for ever in every direction until the supply is exhausted.

A survey of local museums in the UK might show a surprising number of kinds of objects that could be found in every one; a stuffed squirrel, a boot-hook, a porcelain teacup, a fossil sharks tooth.



The act of taxonomy, as well as creating a name, creates a space. This object is given this name to distinguish it from all other objects which it is not. So that even if the object is physically lost, like the Dodo, it still exists as an identity, a non-thing for which there is a dodo shaped space. A thing may exist, it seems, even when it no longer exists.

c. J Walker 2000