Emma Dodd explores the intriguing, thought provoking art installation for Lippy
If you have been to Left Bank in the past month, perhaps unwittingly to study or catch up with a friend, then you will not have missed Giles Walker's towering contemporary art installation, aptly named "Monster". Greeted by three four-foot animatronic mice, adorned with prominent phallic pieces, my guileless plans for a quiet coffee catch-up turned into something much more provoking.
Intrigued, I took in the sculpture, which extended backwards into the chancel of the old church with a collection of ghoulish looking mannequins, scattered in various positions between the mice and the choir stalls. Nearly all of the characters had what appeared to be old muslin or bandages wrapped around their eyes and faces, giving them an unsettling appearance. Kitted-out with bulbous noses and distressed plastic mannequin limbs, I imagined it looked similar to what you would find in an abandoned Debenhams. As a whole, it didn’t seem unreasonable to compare the scene to that of a ship. At the centre was a 2ft high crucifix-like mast and behind it, a little hut-like cabin. At the stern of the model Walker had raised what looked like an old school locker adorned with security cameras and TV antennas. Beneath it, sat a figure dressed in a dated school uniform with a lampshade on her head.
Despite the fact that this piece was a spectacle even in its stationary state, all the figures in this collective “Monster” were held in place by yards of taught red string, running out from their limbs in numerous angles and leaving us waiting in anticipation for some sort of movement to begin. Suddenly, to this essay-writing student’s dismay, the lights were lowered and a haunting score by Paul Hartnoll filled the room. The blindfolded Mice at the front of the model began to drag and swing the metal buckets chained to their hands, head turning from side to side. One of the more disturbing features of the model, children dressed in pyjamas with drums for heads - yes, drums for heads - started banging out a sombre rhythm with their animatronic hands. They stood in wheelbarrows pushed by figures dressed in early 20th Century nurses’ outfits, adding to the haunting war-era feel of the piece.
Behind them, characters in scholar's gowns and caps shouted out marching orders and dressing downs to onlookers. One stationed in the church’s pulpit puppeteered the voice of Carson The Butler, schmoozing “very good my lord”. These establishment-like characters stood at odds with the rest of the figures: a guilt ridden elderly couple, a family with a chain smoking baby, and an arresting quarrel between a domestic abuse victim and her partner. Their voices, recognisable soundbites from TV dramas, news readings and even Prince Andrew’s BBC interview, make the toil of these other worldly figures seem strikingly real and significant. The link between these characters and stoic professors surrounding them is not unsubtle. One scholar earnestly pushes a pram modified to replicate a military coffin.
At what I may describe as the climax of the piece, a child-like mannequin arises from the ship's cabin -mouth wide open - singing a haunting aria in front of a crucified figure. This scene, against a backdrop of the Church’s stained-glass depiction of Christ on the Cross, certified Left Bank as an evocative venue. Speaking afterwards, the friend I was meeting said she thought the child to be symbolic of the current refugee crisis, a theme Walker disclosed he was keen to address, alongside issues such as Brexit and the wider political landscape. Despite our timid observations the sculpture remained a mystery. As you can imagine, it was quite hard to discern in one sitting. This unsurprisingly was Walker’s intention.
In an interview with inspiring city he said of the piece: “I didn’t like the idea of it being a show where you come, you get it, and you walk away again”, instead hoping that viewers would be “more intrigued than when they arrived”. Walker’s overlaid media recordings definitely add to this effect, making it impossible to grasp all the narrative threads in one viewing. Despite his encouragement and eagerness to see audiences “walk away with completely different interpretations”, speaking of the central relationship between the establishment characters and other figures in his piece he does hint that:
“you don’t have to dig too deep before you clearly see it is fundamentally abusive and dishonest. It is built upon lie after lie. It is fuelled by a complacent contempt for the average citizen. It is a relationship in which the vicious perpetrator cries out “I love you” whilst you nurse your bleeding nose and broken finger.”
This relationship fuels a wider system, one I assume to be this great monster; a Leviathan-like creature more focused on the exploitation of Man and Mice for a bucket full of profit than enacting a duty of care for its citizens. A veneer of Union Jacks and penny jingoisms ultimately serve as a ghoulish window dressing and distraction for the desolate figures within. Ultimately, it is a system in which the cry of an unaccompanied child is drowned out by the customary drums of the establishment.
Viewers of Monster at Leeds Left Banks were encouraged to make a donation to refugee community kitchen. Click here to do so.
Words by Emma Dodd
Photo Credit: PA Media | Giles Walker