‘CAPSID’, a cross-disciplinary maximalist installation by John Walter has come to HOME, Manchester, curated by Ben O’Callaghan. Here Walter presents his biggest solo show to date, a collaborative project alongside Professor Greg Towers, a molecular virologist at University College London. Walter bridges the boundaries of science, pop culture, art, theory and activism, executing these conceptual ideas into a “shonky” aesthetic, favouring elements of the handmade. The ground floor of HOME gallery is inundated with bold print pattern and colour depicting a flurry of unlikely cultural references such as Adventure Time, Les Dawson, and EastEnders.
This exhibition highlights the important recognition of viruses such as HIV, bringing scientific knowledge and understanding to the audience, probing interest through a hospitable approach and anthropomorphising the unseen. ‘A Virus Walks into a Bar’ represents the Capsid’s journey delivering viruses to host cells during infection, translated to the audience using a comical amalgamation of soap opera, drama and children’s entertainment.
After Nyne caught up with Walter to chat mutating cells, moving image, and the intersections of science and art.
How do you use different fields to explore your own practise?
“The whole project is a collaboration with Prof Greg Towers who’s a virologist at UCL and he’s working on what happens inside the HIV virus when it infects a cell, so I’m really using that to make analogies that I can use to invoke my painting. I mean my practise is already very diverse and working with scientists takes it to another level”.
How do you translate your painting technique from 2D on paper to a more 3-D form?
“So, when I go between different media, there are different possibilities with each working process. So, if you take an image from one sort of species to the next, it mutates. There’s not a jump, I just do a lot of things. For example, the triskelion three-legged image that pops up a lot, it gets repeated in different things that sort of changes its meaning as it changes context”.
Your exhibition seems orientated around space, with a lot of domestic elements such as wallpaper, carpets mannequins. Is this how you incorporate layering in your work?
“Everything’s very much to do with picture playing, so I mean that’s a kind of pictorial space it not sculptural or architectural. It’s to do with what happens when you stick this thing next to this thing or above this thing. Do they vibrate? Do they change? Does something happen? And that could be colours or they could be the images. So yes, it’s always about certain types of layering and that happens in video as well, and yes you can achieve different effects with each different medium really”.
How in video do you achieve layering?
“So, video is all about layering and in any animation, you can start to pile up layers and compress them. This makes different effects and different kinds of resonances so yeah, I like to go back and forth between all these things and they sort of leak information between one to the next”.
How does anthropomorphising elements of your work help explain your concepts?
“There’s a video called ‘A Virus Walks into a Bar’ which is a really convenient way of telling the life cycle story of a virus. It’s set in a pub on a street in London, it might be somewhere in between like Coronation Street or EastEnders, maybe via Twin Peaks and Teletubbies. It’s very useful to tell stories that use people, even though the scale of the virus is on a nano-scale, that’s very un-relatable to us as bodies, so we can scale that up. There’s also a ridiculousness of it and using carnival-esque strategies performance and costume is an access route in to the subject matter. So anthropomorphising something hopefully doesn’t infantilise it, but it makes it graspable to the viewer, brings it to life”.
Why are you not always in your performances?
“I’m not in this video, I used to be in the videos a lot but I’ve increasingly used other people to be the characters, this allows me to do different things and it also allows the work to have a bigger life because it’s not dependant on me being there. So I might go back into the work at some point and I’m definitely in the work in terms of its appearance as my hand is all over it, you can tell it’s John Walter’s work but in terms of this video [a virus walks into a bar] I became the director and you ask about hospitality, well in the video [a virus walks into a bar] well [a)] it’s at the bar and [b)] all that stuff I’ve learnt from running bars within exhibitions in order to engage people has helped me make a really nice atmosphere on set and that then fed into how successful the film was, so yeah I like being the director and bossing people about”.
Why do you use cartoons and pop-culture elements within your work?
“I suppose I use anything that’s at hand and when illustrating an idea it’s more about feeling my way towards something. If I have got a particular fascination with an image at any given time, then I’ll be using it. I was really into Adventure Time and you’ll find there’s Magic Man and Peppermint Butler Princess Bubble-gum as well, and also I think it’s useful to use images that other people like. It’s a hook, and then you can take them on a journey to tell them things they don’t know about, so if you give them something recognisable you’ve got them in the palm of your hand”.
Words: Elly Foster
Image: John Walter CAPSID at HOME: install shot – photo credit: Lee Baxter (c)