by Alexander Quaresma | @TheRedFlagg
"I like the Walrus best," said Alice, "because you see he was a little sorry for the poor oysters."
"He ate more than the Carpenter, though," said Tweedledee.
-Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871)
LOCATION: Approaching the Holland Tunnel, Jersey City, NJ (April/May 2015)
Late in the Spring of 2015 world renowned visiting Belgian street artist ROA painted this mural of a dead walrus. The piece exemplifies almost everything you need to know about the artist, as it is classically characteristic of ROA, who is well known for his depictions of the skeletal structures of animals.
The artist has gone on the record for expressing his love of animals, even at a biologically scientific level of curiosity. ROA has also made it known that he likes painting in abandoned and forgotten urban corners of our civilization, such as this Jersey City lot. Here he paints his walrus almost as a potential representational psukhe of the industrial sprawl; an area once alive and now dead; though not entirely forgotten.
Indeed it is very interesting, that in spite of the concrete, brick and mortar everywhere, nature – as ROA will point out, reclaims the space. ROA is fond of reminding us that rodents, insects, and birds all find their way of adapting to these urban concrete sanctuaries and reclaim them. Even vegetation will flower forth through cracks in the pavement and niches in the walls before long. Such signs of life foreshadow an encroachment and an eventual complete enveloping by nature of these spaces if left unattended. Indeed, if for whatever reason, cities suddenly were to become devoid of human existence, they would assuredly be covered in a mat of lush and green plant life harboring more rodents, insects, birds, and whatever else; and be relegated to a mysterious and hazardous vertical jungle within a century or two.
There is also no nature without death. ROA's animal skeletons, the walrus being no different in this regard, serve to remind us of what exists beneath the flesh and tissue of a departed life. The bones remain after death. At the same time they also intimate to us of what exists beneath the cement and cinder blocks which constitutes our urban city sprawls: the natural environment.
Down the rabbit hole
When you consider where the mural is situated it is also most interesting that ROA uses a walrus. A walrus is not exactly an animal indigenous to the Tri-State area and ROA has expressed in the past that, generally speaking, he prefers to paint animals natural to the area. This begs the question, why a walrus in north east New Jersey?
While I cannot speak to have any knowledge of ROA's political leanings, though the appellation he has appropriated for himself as an artist may provide a clue, I can offer a potential interpretation based on my own personal experience as they mingle with the image produced by the artist. In Lewis Carroll's novel Alice Through the Looking Glass we come across an immortal poem which concerns a voracious walrus and his equally voracious carpenter companion. It is a 108-line poem which has tantalized readers with seemingly endless fodder ripe for analysis.
One interpretation of Carroll’s poem (though I wouldn't claim it to be the most important, and certainly not the most useful) which comes to mind is a view of the walrus and carpenter as the combined forces of economic capital and the brand of industrious orthodox Protestant Christianity rooting itself in the west. The walrus, in this instance, represents the "economic capital" half of this all-encompassing socio-political dynamic-duo who manipulate themselves into positions whereby they are able to consume anything and everything they can get their hands on. Therefore, considering that the mural is placed in the vicinity of an underground portal (the Lincoln Tunnel), somewhat similar to the rabbit hole Alice falls into, which ultimately leads one to an island where this global banking wonderland of economic capital is provocative. One could easily assume that ROA is connecting a few dots.
If this is a potential association ROA is making, we might be wont to ask, "Why?" It would seem to me that it goes back to ideas which ROA likes to play with, either consciously or even unconsciously - that empty urban spaces are reclaimed by nature. Perhaps a more useful way of saying this would be: That empty spaces are reclaimed by processes of the natural world. ROA's mural would therefore stand as a reminder that economic-market forces, and the energies behind them, are as ephemeral as the lives of the trees, weeds, and flowers chopped down and paved over in order for such forces to build its cityscapes.
In spite of its apparent use of Carroll’s pejorative symbol of capitalism, ultimately the mural makes no judgment for or against any particular brand of market forces. It transcends above such trivialities. It can serve as an echo chamber for those who wish want to see capitalism in the evil light such an interpretation of Carroll’s poem elucidates if one really wants to, or it can simply exist as a signifier of an admonition that the dominant globalist banking system is here, and it - like everything else - has an expiration date. The supine position of the walrus in the mural certainly does seem to be intimating at an entombment of something, even if that something is an idea.
While fervent arguments ad infinitum can be made for and against the former interpretation of ROA’s mural, one can’t really argue with the latter. The message therefore reflects a two-fold truth in relation to ROA’s walrus coupled with the environment it is painted in. First, it exists in a sea of dynamic urban sprawl, similar to the dynamic processes of nature when left to its own processes; also similar to the dynamic processes of arguments and interpretations one could offer about the piece in relation to its symbolism. Secondly - much like a serene pond or glade in a greater forested hunt-or-be-hunted deciduous environment - the forlorn urban lot ROA has painted his walrus in reflects something else. It is that of a calm and resolute truth that remains when everything else - like flesh decomposing off of bone - is stripped away.