What is a Wall, After All?

“The way my walls are made, stone upon stone, is like growth.”
Andy Goldsworthy

Walls are made piece by piece. Walls are destroyed piece by piece. All around us, happening everywhere they appear like tracks of some passing despot. It is ours to notice, it is ours to reason why.

What are walls? When do we perceive them? How do we create walls or destroy them? What do they mean to us?

Despite some rather obvious examples, walls are so common nowadays we barely perceive them. Walls are not singular; they function with landscape. Part of a building, yard, or road. Anonymously supporting the lives we lead.

What is a wall
Berlin Wall. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy constructs walls in the wall-building fashion of his native Cumbria. For Goldsworthy, a wall gestures to its immediate landscape but should aspire to obscurity.

Sculpture can take on the quality of a design in the landscape, and I make works that function at that level. But I always feel there’s a more profound level of working with the landscape. I’m usually trying to quiet down the aspects that are perceived as being about sculpture.

Though we might not perceive them, there are walls. The space that used to be whole is divided. Even Goldsworthy’s walls that snake around trees make us wonder what happens to space when it’s divided. Especially natural, unbounded space, which should never brook such divisions, save those made by water, ice.

What is a wall
Berlin Wall. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Unnaturally divided space and an unrelenting, obstructing wall is central to the poetry of British Romantic poet John Clare. In the late 1700s, under the Enclosure Acts, common land was rapidly walled to form farms and fields.

Clare, who lived and wrote during England’s Industrial Revolution, was fascinated and tormented by these abrupt boundaries and enclosures. To Clare, walls were tyrannical. From his poem “Helpston,” circa 1812:

But now alas those scenes exist no more
The pride of life with thee (like mine) is oer
They pleasing spots to which found memory clings
Sweet cooling shades and soft refreshing springs
And though fate’s pleas’d to lay their beauties by
In a dark corner of obscurity.

Walls hide and obscure space in darkness. They create parts and pieces of something once whole.

What do they do to us who live among them?

I traveled to Berlin recently, spent time next to what remains of the Berlin Wall. I remember hearing, as a child, that a wall separated East and West Berlin, and I always wondered but never asked (perhaps intrinsically I knew it was silly) “These people are stuck, why don’t they simply walk around it?” Well, as I saw firsthand: it wasn’t a wall— it was an enclosure. The ends met. Additionally, of course, it was a highly militarized enclosure with many other deterring features.

The Berlin Wall had ends that met. Goldsworthy’s walls don’t, although they do enclose spaces with tight bends. How does enclosure change the nature of the wall? What if our vantage point is inside? What if it’s outside?

What is a wall
Berlin Wall. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

It is human nature to feel something about a wall because walls are decidedly human. In nature, we might find a cliff, or shelf, exhibiting a sleek vertical plane, certainly. However, a wall has two faces. Two faces sculpted by mortals. It must hold something back, something unseen, something imagined. Something apart from us.

What is that “thing apart”? In Berlin, the thing apart was neighbors, family, loved ones. Socioeconomic systems and, thus, entire futures.

At its most abstract level, a wall separates us from the dark unknown. Russian-born novelist Vladimir Nabokov believed an impenetrable wall of time separated him from oblivion.

Over and over again, my mind has made colossal efforts to distinguish the faintest of personal glimmers in the impersonal darkness on both sides of my life. That this darkness is caused merely by the walls of time separating me and my bruised fists from the free world of timelessness is a belief I gladly share with the most gaudily painted savage. I have journeyed back in thought—with thought hopelessly tapering off as I went—to remote regions where I groped for some secret outlet only to discover that the prison of time is spherical and without exits.

When we perceive something as a wall, we normalize its existence, even understand the placement of this thing that isn’t natural. That suggests the strongest walls are those we cannot perceive. Strength alone isn’t entirely bad, however.

In Japanese folklore, there is a fantastical creature called nurikabe. This imagined phenomenon appears as a wall that restricts movement. It occurs when someone is walking alone, perhaps at night, in an unfamiliar area. Who hasn’t felt this psychosomatic effect of fear or exhaustion? Nurikabe is ominous but not permanent; apparently it can be vanquished if struck at its base.1

Even if we feel walls, do we see them? Do we see them as readily as Clare did? Every time you read “wall,” what do you see? Is it tall? How tall? Does it stretch to infinity or wrap and continue onto itself? Does it protect or contain you? I imagine, at the very least, your wall is solid. Strong and staid. Or is it?

Perhaps it is a paper-thin walls of traditional Eastern architecture. Novelist Jun’ichirō Tanizaki wrote beautifully about the luminosity of Japanese interiors made and defined by paper walls:

The light from the pale white paper, powerless to dispel the heavy darkness of the alcove, is instead repelled by the darkness, creating a world of confusion where dark and light are indistinguishable.

Darkness created by this wall is not the obscurity of John Clare’s wall, obscurity that creates its own night of existence. To Tanizaki, walls have a purpose of composure. They maintain and control secrets of space.

Irish ceramist Isobel Egan uses porcelain to make her own paper-thin walls. In her structures, the ends meet, and space is compartmentalized by these translucent, fragile walls. The eye settles easily on the space, and the structures invite mental unburdening. Rest.

Porcelain structures by Irish ceramist, Isobel Egan. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

This soft but firm wall makes me realize how often we see a wall having symbolic antipodes: a masculine wall that separates and defines, and a maternal wall that supports and comforts. Those maternal walls that absorb our pain, hold our secrets, and buttress our backs when, really, a wall could hug every point on a symbolic curve, meaning something different to everyone but something all the same.

What is a wall
Berlin Wall. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

My preferred concept of a “wall”—and what I imagine when confronted with the term—is one of the garden. Take for instance nineteenth-century gardener Gertrude Jekyll, whose collaborative work with landscape designer Edward Lutyens combined structure and playful chaos into what we have come to know as the British garden. For this pair, brimming with creativity and vitality, a wall is a key player. It works with the earth, the plants, and the land. It retains (what a great word) the space so that plants and flowers can feature foremost.

A garden wall is a wall in full supportive maternal significance with a hint of masculine strength. These are walls I build and seek.

In Berlin, I was oddly fascinated with the wall itself. Its materiality. What is this wall made of? What’s inside this wall? Nabokov’s wall was made of time. Goldsworthy’s walls are made of ice or stone. Egan’s walls are porcelain.

What is a wall
Inside section of Berlin Wall. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The Berlin Wall was made of iron rebar, stones, and cement. I returned with a piece of cement. I broke it out of the kitschy plastic and held it in my hand. It’s nothing. Rough, smooth. A symbol of something that used to be. Just a piece, really.

A piece of a wall. A wall, after all, is nothing more than pieces of things added and adhered.

As Goldsworthy said, a wall forms from growth. Walls don’t simply exist; they are growing. Or decaying. Ever-changing human creations, swayed by our own imagination and power.

When a wall reinforces and symbolizes conventional powers (in other words when a wall opposes its landscape) it might not be destructible to you and I, but it can be addressed, nonetheless.

In 2012, Mexican – American Artist Ana Teresa Fernandez, famous for her melting-ice shoe sculptures (she stands for hours bound in ice-shoes until they melt, releasing her), inspired residents of Mexican border towns to grab ladders, brushes and to “erase the border” (Borrando la Frontera). Using a perfect sky-blue paint they dismantled the wall’s visual malice. Giving comfort where there was no hope.

Walls are made piece by piece. Walls are destroyed piece by piece. They are harmless and harmful. Kinetic and staid.

The thing most particular about walls is they are all around. Happening everywhere anonymously or brutally obstructive. They appear like tracks of some passing despot.

It is ours to notice these walls, it is ours to reason why.