North West, by Dr Dominic Paterson

Posted on Friday 18th March, 2011

Katri Walker North West
Exhibition: North West
Peacock Visual Arts
Aberdeen, Scotland
March 2011

by Dr Dominic Paterson

The concerns of Katri Walker’s exhibition North West might be seen as literally embodied in the large photographic print of a bare-chested piper which greets the viewer on entering the gallery. At first glance this image seems to portray a quintessential masculine Scottish identity, perhaps even an exaggeration of that identity. But this reading is complicated when we notice that alongside almost clichéd signifiers of Scottishness, the man in this photograph bears other cultural symbols: a Stars and Stripes dog tag, and a tattoo of the iconic Old West gunslinger Wyatt Earp. If the goal of a photographic portrait is to get under the skin of its subject, what Walker finds under the skin of Pipe Major Wyatt Earp is this tattoo, an image in ink that refers us to something, or someone, seemingly external to the person whose body it adorns. Identity is portrayed here as a multi-faceted layering of identifications and affiliations, made up of different kinds of belonging. Just as subjectivity is presented as complex, so the medium of photography, and our faith in its ability to document identities, is complicated and questioned. This particular tattoo is itself a product of the photographic era; it is a likeness made possible by the fact that Earp, born a mere 9 years after the invention of photography, sat for portraits throughout his life. Though these photographs accurately document Earp’s physical appearance, what we see in them is shaped by the stories, histories and myths which surround him.

Late in his life Earp was asked to advise on the first Hollywood movies to mythologise the West, and since that time has himself been immortalised on the silver screen, played by the likes of Kevin Costner, Kurt Russell, James Stewart, and Burt Lancaster amongst many others. The image of Earp which we see inscribed on this man’s body, therefore operates through a process of mythologisation, and the line between fact and fiction in both the portraits visible in Walker’s photograph (that of Earp and that of the pipe major who styles himself as Earp) seems to blur. Walker’s attentiveness to such blurring, and her sensitivity to the way it is registered in people and places is one of the hallmarks of her art.

In her early work Walker frequently appeared in her films, which often presented subjective dilemmas or entanglements through simple comedic, absurdist, or poignant scenarios, shot from a single fixed camera. A Compromising Position (2007), a film made for her Masters Degree Show at Glasgow School of Art, marked the last time she worked in this mode. This piece showed the artist tied to train tracks and struggling to free herself, in homage, perhaps, to the imagery of silent movies. By moving behind the camera in the work she has made since then, Walker seems to have escaped the restrictions of self-portraiture and been able to create a working space where she can address places, situations and lives that connect with, but also go beyond, her own experience. That is not to say that Walker is not present in her films; the evident rapport she develops with her subjects, something which gives the work its characteristically sensitive and intimate tone, is the most obvious register of her presence. Walker also leaves her mark in the meticulous editing of her films, especially, as in North West, when they are presented as multiple-screen works. These two qualities have allowed Walker to present the extraordinary lives and beliefs of others in her films without ever seeming to capitulate to the potential of documentary film to moralise, narrativise or exploit its subjects.

The Making of Three Guns for a Killing shows enthusiastic amateur film-makers engaged in making a Wild West movie of their own devising, in the extraordinary setting of ‘Tranquility City,’ a movie set one of them has constructed in his Aberdeenshire garden. The genre of the ‘making of’ implies a behind the scenes look at a blockbuster film, and Walker’s sense of the quirkiness and humour inherent in this infinitely more modest project is manifest throughout, but her work by no means condescends to these enthusiasts. Rather it seems to take an affectionate and sympathetic view of their escapist love for fictional stories and alter egos. The work is structured as a series of individual portraits, which feels appropriate because, although the social aspect of the men’s movie-making is clear enough, both the connotations of Wild West heroism and the more prosaic one of British men retreating to their garden sheds suggest a rather isolated or individualistic sense of self. What Walker shows us is not so much the inherent failure of their efforts – though accents, landscape and weather all stubbornly refuse to suggest anywhere much further west than Fort William – but the yearning that inspires the effort in the first place. “I’ve really been looking for this place all my life…” one of her subjects says, and in this phrase, with its implication of seeking a second home or second nature, we get a glimpse of how the subjective, the historical and the cultural intertwine.

The film work North West might also be seen as a character portrait, focusing on the astonishing inselbergs (or ‘island mountains’) of Torridonian sandstone which have been shaped by the geological history of Assynt. This landscape is astonishingly beautiful – a real wild West – but it is also one deeply marked by human history, by issues of appropriation, ownership and migration. Walker’s framing and editing reflects this, so that the lone sheep that appears in the film can’t help but recall the Clearances, while the extraordinary images of ships etched in stone reflect the westward departure of so many Highlanders for America in the 18th and 19th centuries. One of the themes Walker is exploring here is the cyclical patterns of cultural influence, with Scottish migrants helping shape American culture, and that culture ultimately exported back here in turn, fuelling the imaginations of Scots like the men seen in The Making of Three Guns for a Killing. The layered sounds of Wounded Knee’s soundtrack for North West perfectly accompany this sense of shifting and looping influence. That the landscape Walker shows us was once joined to North America as part of the prehistoric Pangaea landmass, and that migrants from Scotland were amongst the cowboys of the Old West, lends deeper resonance to the portraits of the Scottish cowboys in the other pieces in the exhibition. Perhaps Aberdeenshire isn’t so remote from the O.K. Corral after all.

North West, Pipe Major Wyatt Earp and The Making of Three Guns for a Killing all reveal Walker’s double-edged approach to the documentary mode in art. On the one hand we are invited to look behind the scenes of a fiction, or to look carefully and concentratedly at a landscape or a body, as if looking will reveal truth. But on the other hand, what we see is ultimately another kind of fiction or story, and Walker never presumes that the camera lens escapes artifice – the documentary is a genre after all, just like the Western. What she reveals to us, then, might be thought of as the truth inherent in fictions themselves.  In The Making of Three Guns for a Killing one of the protagonists tells us: “as for reality, about the 1860s to the 1890s, I would have loved to have lived then. You know I didn’t miss it by that much, I just wish I’d been one, two generations before. I think this is me, my alter ego takes over when I leave here, it’s somebody else, this is me…” We should take this seriously, because what we are in our dreams and fantasies has its own truth, while our ordinary, objective lives can indeed seem to be the places in which we merely pretend to be ourselves.

It is characteristic of Walker’s art that it operates with great respect for both her subjects and her viewers, and for the fictions that we all necessarily and inescapably live through. By employing the genres of portraiture and documentary so adeptly, Walker creates works that we can believe in, but at the same time she asks important questions of what film-making as a documentary or aesthetic endeavour might make visible and what that might mean.

Dr Dominic Paterson
Lecturer of Art History, Glasgow University, freelance writer & critic