Monstrous reality

There’s a monster living in Leeds and it’s part of a world that you might not want to inhabit. In reality, Gemma Taylor finds as she meets its maker, you already do

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Politicians, pigeons, past comedians and Prince Andrew all feature in Giles Walker’s most ambitious piece yet.

Monster is an immersive installation from the renowned artist and sculptor that comes alive after dark. Walker has drawn on scrap materials and animatronics to create the piece, which leaves viewers feeling like they’ve entered an old attic full of surreal finds.

It reflects a modern Britain the artist describes as “a sick nation”.

“It’s always been broken,” says Walker. “But I think what’s amazing with this current government is how in its madness and in its incompetence it has exposed the cracks and shown the very protected establishment for what it is – a completely corrupt, undemocratic system”.

Exploring Monster, viewers will gain a unique perspective. Walker has deliberately designed the experience to be “sporadic, sprawling and to have a sense of chaos – menace even”. Its overwhelming nature, an intentional reflection of society, means it can’t all be taken in at once.

The cacophonous soundtrack is orchestrated by Orbital’s Paul Hartnoll and voiced by robots. Racist jokes are received by raucous laughter; snippets provide chilling insights to the treatment of refugees; soundbites from Prince Andrew’s car-crash Newsnight interview are interspersed with persistent coughing. And then there’s Jesus, the robot on the cross. “He gets all the good lines,” Walker says.

The coughing was part of the piece from when it was conceptualised pre-pandemic, and it took on further meaning by the time it was complete.

“It was about a nation self-harming and having a mental breakdown,” says Walker. “When everyone came to the launch in London wearing masks, it was surreal – it felt like a cheap PR stunt. Some people were freaked out because they thought the coughing might be coming from other people in the audience.”

Giles Walker says his installation Monster describes a “sick nation”. Photo: Jazz Jenning
Giles Walker says his installation Monster describes a “sick nation”. Photo: Jazz Jenning

Now the sculpture has relocated from the Truman Stables in London to Left Bank in Leeds – a grade II listed former church. The books that litter the floor have been repurposed too –  many of them were rescued from skips. To Walker, they represent human knowledge.

“As a species we know so much, we have analysed so much about everything, and yet we’re still destroying the planet, still living in a wealthy country where so many people go hungry. We’ve got all this knowledge and yet it means nothing. I find it mind-boggling.”

They develop further meaning in their unique positions too – a Prince Andrew robot occupies a bookshelf. What knowledge is he sitting on?

“Just what do the establishment have to do for people to react, to get out on the streets for starters?” asks Walker. “I continue to go to demonstrations where there are just 100 people outside Downing Street because billions of pounds of public money has been unaccounted for.

“So actually the system is not broken – it’s working very well for the people who created it.”

Is there any joy to be found in this monstrous world?

“There’s some cooing wood pigeons at the end?” Walkers offers. “I always find it depressing but some people really like that.

“I think the joy would probably be coming out of it so furious that you decide to do something about it.”

Monster is at Left Bank Leeds, 13-29 January (leftbankleeds.org.uk)

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