Julian Walker

Walking On Eggshells, 2000

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Walking On Eggshells
Yard Gallery, Nottingham, 2000

Walking On Eggshells, 2000

An exhibition in a gallery connected to a natural history museum; the works looked at the identity of natural history objects as cultural objects, particularly within the culture of collecting. Two large installations were made. In Walking on Eggshells a 5m long glass pathway was constructed enabling people to walk over 175 birds' eggs; Counting was a collection of 6004 fossil sharks teeth each labelled with the name of a character from the Bible, the number signifying the age of the earth according to pre-scientific calculation in 1650, and the objects deriving from the first fossils geologically studied, also in the 17th century. Other works looked at the seductive language of natural history collecting, the process of naming, and the creation of desire.


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 Ussher's 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.