Liz Walker-The Wave

Liz Walker

Everyone, sooner or later, gets a thorough schooling in brokenness. The question becomes: what to do with the pieces?

Michael Chabon[i]

Visiting Liz Walker’s studio a few weeks before the opening, our first topic of conversation is about the dreams artists have before an exhibition. Beacons of pre-exhibition anxiety, these are the types of dreams where all manner of disasters take place; works slide off gallery walls; floor plan measurements fall mysteriously short; sculptures crumble or topple. We both agree though, that to dream of an exhibition before it has taken place, no matter how catastrophic, is a sign that the mind is preparing for the event, and so maybe not such a bad thing.

It’s easy to see how Walker’s work might inhabit our dreams. The studio is filled with dozens of racks, each filled with hundreds of sticks that have been wedged into place. These mini forests are stacked in shelves and spread out across a large workbench. There are a variety of woods gleaned from Australian native trees such as Eucalypts, Casuarinas and Acacias – all collected from fallen branches at local parks. At the studio, the sticks are cut with a scroll saw before Walker creates an indentation around the top edge of each stick. This intervention transports the material to the anthropomorphic realm; if each ring is a neck, then each stick is a depiction of a human being. From here we read an infinite variety of postures and expressions; slumped shoulders, curved torsos, bowed heads, tired arms...a litany of human suffering.

Indeed, there are 37 697 sticks (and the artist has counted), each intended as a commemoration of the 37 697 refugees who travelled by boat to Australia from 1976–2012. The scale of labour in this eighteen month project is overwhelming. The logistics of mapping out the sculpture and then collecting, gluing and placing the sticks is difficult to comprehend. And this is precisely Walker’s point. How do we begin to understand the magnitude of people who have sought a new beginning in Australia? It was the artist’s own incapacity to grasp this that led her to create what we might see as a votive offering, a meditative action which imbues each person with value.

Although the studio is filled with the usual shackles of a workspace, it’s easy to imagine the rich textural effects and the dense optical play of the finished sculpture isolated in the gallery space. This ambitious use of natural objects for sculptural purposes bears an affinity with Land artists like Richard Long, who creates large scale installations consisting of multiple objects (most commonly rocks) from Nature. Closer to home, Walker’s work also suggests a correlation with the work of Lauren Berkowitz, whose collections of objects both natural and manmade are fashioned into improbably large scale encounters. Each artist shares a tendency to gather and order small multiples with the purpose of creating larger optical fields.

Elsewhere in the studio are numerous rickety old suitcases. These are highly loaded objects; each internal pattern revealing an earlier era, each handle bearing the imprint of a previous owner. Upon opening, we see they have been transformed into tableaux reminiscent of Joseph Kosuth or Ed Kienholz. By incorporating found street signage and softer domestic embroideries, the finished objects bear down the conflicting tensions of hostile bureaucracy with domesticity.

In Nature, a tree provides a canopy or natural shelter for people. The twig or stick is a displaced remnant from this larger protective whole. Through this material, Walker weaves an apt metaphor of lives broken and snapped by exile. In response to Michael Chabon’s question posed at the beginning of the essay, we might see how Walker’s response is to pick up the pieces and to study each of them with a thoroughly loving regard.

Jane O’Neill

June 2014

1. Michael Chabon, “The Film Worlds of Wes Anderson”, New York Review of Books (January 31, 2013)