Artists in Quarantine No.5
So much has changed that going out to see things and meet people, let alone see and touch real physical art works has the taste of forbidden fruit.
No one of us has ever experienced what now appears as a dystopia come true. The possibility of re-infection is ever present, and no one knows where it could strike next.
Thus, it takes courage and hope even to envisage a live show in these most uncertain of times. Richard Walker has dared to shake a fist at the Coronavirus God.
Have the last six months been so shocking that it takes a work of fiction to grasp it? Indeed, inspiration can be found in Ray Bradbury’s Sci-Fi classic Fahrenheit 451. Cuckooland, Walker’s multimedia display over three floors, tells a story of today through painting, drawing, film, music and spoken word. It’s an interpretation of Bradbury’s book, which was set in an unknown future.
Guy Montag, the book’s anti-hero-hero, lives in a state where people are dumbed down by the constant babble of images. Walking outside is simply not done. The possession of any book is illegal. Books and their owners are burnt to cinders by firemen. The threat of war is imminent, with war planes constantly shrieking overhead.
Published in 1953, only eight years after the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and when the Cold War reached its peak, Fahrenheit 451 plumbed into widespread fear of nuclear war. These were years when feature films, like Five and The World, the Flesh and the Devil imagined entire populations being wiped out by chemical or nuclear war.
As Cuckooland reveals, Bradbury foresaw today’s surveillance society, the loss of intellectual thought, the promotion of populism. Fahrenheit 451 predicted today’s general acceptance of the invasion of privacy, with apps such as ‘track and trace’ and algorithms being fuelled by the tyranny of social media.
These stark but resonant images reflect back to us the strange new world of the pandemic – abandoned city centres, lockdowns, lurking viruses, bulky protective outfits, helmets, visors and face masks.
There is a chess-piece logic to each component, like repeated phrases in music or the objects on the table of a Cubist still life. Instead of the guitar, bottle, cigarette packet and newspaper there is a long road to possible freedom, the harsh orb of the sun, the hovering bomber, the printed text, the freestyle doodle, the amoeba-like virus, the silenced face, the cut-out humans.
The book’s main character appears in The Transfiguration of Guy Montag as a ghostly piece of newsprint, hovering in a yellow suit. Figures float and fall, sucked through ominous spaces between menacing city blocks. His sprawling figure is reminiscent of Saint Paul on the road to Damascus.
Early on in the story, Montag is touched by a chance encounter with a mysterious young girl. Troubled by her words, he begins to question the system. The ferocious enforcer of ignorance, the book destroyer, is truly transfigured and becomes an enemy of the state, fleeing to join others in a far away refuge from the metropolis.
Walker depicts Montag in his hi-vis suit and helmet, covered with illegible script, a dream-like image, full of resonance. A floating man in a ballooning suit – anti-Covid PPE? He reappears in Fall Guy, stretched out in bit-mapped fluorescent turquoise, as though seen through a heat-detecting camera, like a space traveller.
It’s an iconic image that goes back deep into the psyche. The splayed-out, figures dazed or struck down by revelatory events – Caravaggio’s eerily-lit Conversion of Saint Paul, Max Ernst’s Pietà or Revolution by Night and Matisse’s paper cut-out Icarus.
Fahrenheit 451’s mythical – even biblical – qualities are captured by Walker in his simple and surreal images, collaged with different materials, photographs and contrasting textures. In From Metropolis to Junkyard, for example, the shadow of an airplane is cast ominously on open pages of type. The book seems to jump out of a painted pink background as if trying to escape destruction. In Lock up your typewriters a red and white barrier tape crosses over pages opened out on a wrinkled jiffy bag. We’ve seen that tape so often, these days, across park benches and high streets to warn us about social distancing.
The book rendered illegible or inaccessible is the meme that runs through Walker’s extraordinary installation. In Bradbury’s time, half a century before digital books became possible and before the invention of the Internet, hard copies were the chief way that knowledge could be preserved or shared, apart from people’s memories.
Too poor to attend university, Bradbury educated himself entirely by voracious reading in public libraries: books became the gateway to knowledge. Science fiction expressed his reaction to the dehumanising effects of consumer capitalism then re-shaping post-war US society. Fahrenheit 451 was prescient, coming five years before Vance Packard’s exposure of psychological marketing techniques in The Hidden Persuaders.
August 2020 marks the centenary of Bradbury’s birth, and the book is now nearly 70 years old. We are faced with conspiracy theories pumped out to prey on the susceptible. It’s not words on paper that are threatened in these days of alternative facts and logarithmic mind-bending: it’s the very notion that we can actually grasp and change reality which has been massively undermined.
Cuckooland, like Fahrenheit 451, is a warning and also “an affirmation of the value of knowledge and learning and how you must nurture and protect it, emphasising how fragile and fleeting everything in life really is”, as Walker believes. The story closes with the thought and the hope that there can still be a river and a sky and “a tree of life for the healing of the nations”.
Cuckooland is at Bermondsey Project Space, 183-185 Bermondsey Street, 22-30 September 2020
Artists in Quarantine series