The Last Supper Undergoes A Robotic Makeover [Q&A]
On a beautifully hot sunny day, I ventured off to a dark gallery space situated inside a railway arch. The space is called Black Rat Projects, and I was there to take a look at Giles Walker’s installation The Last Supper. The piece features a group of twelve automatons around a long table, including a malformed, grotesque figure in a string vest sitting at one end, while atop was a white overgrown cherub-doll with sinister eyes that darted from side-to-side.
Once the piece is turned on, the creepy forms come shifting mechanically to life, waking from their slumber like clockwork disciples, chattering away inanely, praying, swearing, smoking, and talking solemnly about fast food orders while humans with real bird skulls for heads dot the table in various positions—some sexual, others desperate, some involving red liquid. The whole candlelit scene is like something from a biblical cyber apocalypse, with these lost souls moaning away in a subterranean bunker while the world crumbles to ashes somewhere above.
Giles Walker constructed these robotic sculptures from scrap and other parts over the course of a year, aiming to create a snapshot of how he sees religion in the 21st century. The white doll child is Judas, and the whole thing is littered with religious references. It all added up to a refreshing respite from all that glorious weather. To find out more, I emailed Walker some questions to see how he arrived at this dark and humorous work.
The Creators Project: I read that you built the sculptures from scrap metal over the course of a year in what looks like an incredible feat of engineering, what with all the robotics involved. How did you go about transforming the scrap into these fantastical mechanical sculptures?
Giles Walker: It’s true that I have spent a year building the piece, but I have to confess that I didn’t build it all out of scrap. It was a combination of old and new. With thirteen robots all moving at the same time, you have to use pretty reliable motors, etc., otherwise you’d have a spanner in your hand the whole time. I really wanted this piece to run and run, so I coughed up and bought new RC servos and more. Usually I use only scrap, but not this time.
In the piece, the different sculptures speak in cryptic ways. Where did the words for this come from? Are they quotes from works of literature or films?
The dialogue came from samples that I had collected from various films. I put them together with recordings of myself to try and give it some cohesive meaning. The sound was the hardest thing to do out of the whole project. It took me ages and many attempts. I wanted something violent and threatening, yet without a shouting match. I wanted it to mean something and yet leave a lot to the imagination.
The piece is kind of terrifying, with its mix of uncanny automatons covered in studded leather in a kind of post-apocalyptic robot future. Why did you want to present the last supper in this way?
I didn’t really look at portraying The Last Supper in the future. If anything I wanted it to have a feeling of having come from the distant past and moving into the future. It is a glimpse at something that is an ever evolving characteristic of humanity. Religion is man-made and seems to be a necessary part of the human condition.
In what ways is the piece addressing religion in the 21st century?
The piece is a snapshot of religion in the 21st century—how I see religion and the role it plays in our society. I wanted to question the role religion plays in our society and focus especially on the way it treats children. There was a lot of media coverage on the physical abuse, but I wanted to focus on the mental abuse. The mental abuse comes chiefly from the teachings of an unsubstantiated threat of violence and pain. It was this that I wanted to have running like a current under my last supper. The extreme threat of violence and pain is precisely what the doctrine of hell is, and kids believe it because they are taught it by people they trust.
I also looked at the idea of guilt and betrayal. Children are taught that they are born guilty, told to accept the fact that they are responsible for the crucifixion, in which they have obviously played no part. Told, also, that the agony Jesus suffered on the cross was for their benefit and compensated for an earlier crime they had committed, the sin of Adam—in which they also played no part. That is why in my last supper, the child on the table is Judas, another one falsely accused (I mean the idea of Judas betraying the Son of God is ludicrous, isn’t it?). He was used. Guilt, violence, and pain—all part of a religious education.
I have included so many religious references in The Last Supper that it would take me pages to explain, but it’s probably best I don’t. What has been amazing about showing people the piece over the last week is that they all interpret it differently. A lot of people think that Jesus is the child on the table—I guess because they associate him as the victim.
What were some of your inspirations for the piece? For instance, the creepy cyber-aesthetic that permeates it?
I had no specific inspirations visually. The look of it changed dramatically fairly early on. At first, I was using a lot of scrap in the aesthetics and making the heads, etc. out of bits of scrap, but with thirteen figures, it was so busy and too much for the eye to take in, so I simplified it and ended up casting the heads, etc.
Most of my inspiration came from reading. I read a lot of books on failed utopias and a really interesting book by John Gray called Straw Dogs. I didn’t agree with all he said but I loved what he was saying. On the table of my last supper there are small human figures with bird heads. These are my humans, but I used real bird skulls that emphasize the fact that we are simply a species and not some special being on the planet. The planet has been around for a long time before us and will continue for a very long time after we have left it. Any idea that we can destroy it is pure arrogance. I also read a book called Blindness by Jose Saramago about when the whole of society goes blind except for one woman. Yeah, I guess most inspiration came from books.
What set you on the path to making sculptures from scrap?
I have always made sculpture from scrap. I am a member of the Mutoid Waste Company and have been for about 20 years. It’s what we do. I have to say though, that I feel myself moving away from scrap slightly. Right now I am feeling like a change. I will always use it though in some form because it’s something that I know about and understand. It’s also all you’ve got when there is no budget.
Got any tips for would be scrap foragers looking to repurpose it into mechanical sculptures?
What’s amazing about scrap is how it’s changed over the past 20 years. When you went into a scrap yard and ripped apart a car there were basics that you went for, like the windscreen wiper motor, the electric window motors, etc. Now they have sensors, relays, everything. They are computers really. It’s harder to understand what you are getting, but if you can work it out, it’s a goldmine. What happened with me was, as the scrap got more sophisticated, so did my robotics. My advice for someone starting out in scrap kinetics is to start simply, with a few 12V motors (the wiper motor, the window motors, etc.) and build something with them. That’s what I did. In the end, you will build something that has enough motors in it to warrant a control system. At this stage you have to look about and see what you can afford and what suits your needs. At the moment, everyone is using Arduino because its so cheap and has an underground geek feel about it. I am not that interested in the technical side, more just the finished result, so I always make things the easiest way. I also make everything, because then I know I can fix it.
The exhibition opened Saturday, March 24th and will be open for two weeks.