Walls with Attitude: Elliott Wilcox – ‘Walls’

From the moment we are born we embark upon a lifelong relationship with walls, with all their connotations of containment, protection, division, demarcation, ownership and all the emotive associations that they arouse in us. Walls that we decorate with wallpaper or paint, hang with paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, ornaments etc., become familiar, affording us the sanctity and reassurance of that familiarity and the confirmations of our identity that they bring, as their trappings weave the ambience of domesticity. Other walls such as those in schools, in our workplaces, or those of transit lounges, waiting rooms or prisons offer totally different connotations ones that have impersonal, neutral qualities, walls that denote the non-place that we are rarely able to interact with, or to impose our identities upon, and if we do so, we do it at the risk of prosecution, sanction or other punishment. Walls are not to be touched lest they become marked – their history only scantily marked by light, heat or dust, a history that is subtly registered, weightlessly applied. Structurally strong, paradoxically walls often have vulnerable, fragile surfaces that we feel compelled to protect. So, while they protect us we also need to protect them – this symbiotic relationship is one that is unsung, rarely acknowledged, yet a timeless and enduring one.

Walls always have two sides, each often very different from the other whether those sides be internal, external, either, or both. These variable aspects have something of the gestalt about them as we cannot see both sides at the same time the qualities of neither side can ameliorate the other, a schizophrenic quality that imbues them with a certain element of mystery. The fact that we usually take walls for granted is a given – little about walls occupies our attention let alone surprises us - but at the same time this disregard is unjustified; the London-based photographer Elliott Wilcox would like to shake us out of such complacency. In two of his recent photographic projects, ‘Courts’ and ‘Walls’, walls are given the starring role. The raison d’etre of these walls is to be touched but in very different ways and for very different reasons. Their very reality is, however, in question; when we first view Wilcox’ ‘Walls’ series, they could well be showing slickly offered simulacra of some parallel, alien world, presented with a crispness to match one of Thomas Demand’s immaculate reconstructions of historic events that are so painstakingly constructed and photographed. The precision of the enigmatic, ambiguous edges, corners, and conjunctions of lines we witness here don’t at first match anything that equates with our previous experiences (unless we are committed rock-climbers or mountaineers) and the lumps and blocks that punctuate the geometry of these walls, in their randomness, seem like mere accidents. The fact that they really do represent reality comes as something of a surprise. In a similar way, the American photographer Lynne Cohen, has photographed places equally unfamiliar, the sites of judicial execution – gas chambers, electric chairs, the couches where lethal injections are administered – but these images depict far more clinical, stark and unremittingly sinister spaces. Furthermore, Cohen’s images, have a far stronger documentary mien – Wilcox’s images connote rather than denote, they are inquisitive rather than inquisitorial.

The visually seductive photographs of modern architectural interiors by the German photographer Matthias Hoch also offer a similar mien but have a far slicker, more commercial mien than Wilcox’ photographs, in which paradox and enigma engage in a fight for dominance.

That old cautionary admonition, ‘Walls have ears’ sprang to my mind as I viewed these photographs, the angular geometric tilting and swivelling of these climbing walls suggests a clandestine life whose crisp crystalline sounds go largely unheard – these walls sport asymmetrical lobes, receptors rather than ears - smooth protrusions with frictionally enhanced surfaces invite the climb by taunting the climber with their challenging presence. The slicked smears and stripes of black rubber quieten the once vibrant colours of the synthetic holds, whose bold chromatic rhythms now calmed, become calmer as time passes.

These climbing walls have a distinctly other-worldly quality, a whimsical constellation of forms whose visual weirdness is solidly aided and abetted by the framing and camera angles that Wilcox employed when executing these images. The bizarrely shaped protuberances firmly fixed to these walls all demand different methods of deployment by the climbers, some require a pinch-grip, some a side grip, or with a vertical orientation require a lay-back, some a fist wedge, some a hang-grip requiring a pendulum move. If you begin to study these synthetic hand-holds – some like lumps of discarded chewing gum, some like mysterious amulets (sympathetic magic to assist the climber’s progress?), some like dissected brains, yet others like unidentifiable visceral remains spattered across and clinging immovably to the spots where they landed (we begin to hope that these aren’t the sites of gruesome climbing accidents) - you can start to imagine how climbers might move up or across these walls. Like simulacra of spider man - in their shiny lycra tights and their fitted-like-gloves elastic sticky-soled pumps - puzzlingly emboldened by the challenge of the fact many of those blebs scattered around their vertical tracks look totally implausible as footholds.

There is something decidedly eerie and uncanny about the sight of these unpopulated walls – walls created to be populated - there is an air of forlorn melancholia about their look here, not a sense of neglect or even emptiness but a sense of loss, not a void, but something more rarefied and cleansed of meaning by the presence of absence. Wedged in a lacuna between two states of reality, neither one operative, but each subliminally suggested.

As well as offering us visually intriguing forms, these photographs of climbing walls also introduce the notion that architecture can actually afford us tactile satisfaction – why shouldn’t, like sculpture created specifically for the visually impaired, buildings offer haptically stimulating facades whose surface appearance might be improved by the patina resulting from the constant attention of the hands of passers-by? A symbiotic relationship could be formed between buildings and their users, who would no longer be abusers but creative users through their marking of the walls. Gaston Bachelard’s reference to the ‘polyphony of the senses’ [1], in his book The Poetics of Reverie, might thereby come closer to realisation in our hands-on experiences of the urban environment. In Wilcox’ ‘Walls #3’ we observe that the patination of the walls by the transient and yet deliberate passage of chalk-coated fingers and rubber-soled feet has begun to camouflage the once stark monochromatic surfaces of the concrete, it has brought the deadness of concrete to life, through the layered signatures of human presence - just as his images, through his presence, have enabled Wilcox to endow these walls with a uniquely oblique and startlingly paradoxical sense of life. In his ‘Walls #1’ the scuffing of hands and feet have selectively removed the blue painted surface of the wall to reveal an abstract expressionist version of yellow, randomly spattered around the areas of busiest climbing traffic, creating a minimalist rendition of a Jackson Pollock work.

In his book, The Eyes of the Skin, The Finnish architect, Juhani Pallasmaa, describes an experience of the city that accords well with these notions of a multi-sensual relationship with the urban environment, when he writes, “I confront the city with my body; my legs measure the length of the arcade and the width of the square; my gaze unconsciously projects my body onto the façade of the cathedral, where it roams over the mouldings and contours, sensing the sizes of recesses and projections; my body weight meets the mass of the cathedral door and my hand grabs the door pull. As I enter the dark void behind. I experience myself in the city, and the city exists through my embodied experience.”

The work of artists, such as Wilcox - which might be described as ‘Slow Art’, where in a timeless way the liminal becomes focal, where the peripheries are moved towards the centre of our attention, with a consequent expansion of our perceptions - would seem to offer an emollient to the superficial haste of the ‘byte and move on’ mentality of the digital celerity that increasingly drives our society. Informational burn-out looms and our desire for immediacy, along with the hegemony of urgency, threaten to run out of control, every now and then the brakes need to be judicially applied. I feel my heart race as I consider all this, then as I look at one of Wilcox’s ‘Walls’ series, I feel calm once again returning, I feel their ameliorating effect – these are no mandalas but the calming, centring influence of these images is tangible. I’m quite sure that this aspect of these photographs was far from his intentions, when Wilcox created them, but as per the ‘Theory of Reception’, each viewer’s unique response to an artwork can radically transform it’s ontology, whether it be image, text, sculpture, etc.

Roy Exley 2012


1] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie, Beacon Press, Boston, 1971. Page 6.

2] Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin, John Wiley & Sons, Chichester, 2005.

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