Saturday, 6 December 2014

Walk On: From Richard Long to Janet Cardiff - 40 Years of Art Walking

Walk On is a major exhibition loosely themed around the act of wandering and the art it has inspired over the past 5 or so decades. It is distributed around various venues in Plymouth, allowing the spectator to become a participant by tracing their own routes across the city. Indeed, the city itself can become a backdrop if you take part in one of the walks coinciding with the show, or if you borrow Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s The Walk Book and follow their recorded instructions. The everyday can be transformed, the art prompting you to perceive familiar surroundings from a different angle, making them new and surprising or rendering them strange and alienating. The title Walk On suggests a continuum of work, a distinct path beaten through the tangled and tortuous landscape of modern art. It also suggests a certain indifference to contemporary trends, a lighting out for territories beyond, travelling along tracks branching off from the from the urban Artworld heartlands. The exhibitors here might not consciously be participating in a shared movement or drawing on each other’s work. But there’s evidently something inherently attractive to the artist about walking, getting out into the world. It’s an act which implies a broadening of perspective and an exposure to the unexpected, the unplanned. Walking pursued for its own end can also be a solitary endeavour and positions the artist as an observer, a stranger passing through and recording what she sees. Making the walk itself a subject questions the very basis of art. How does the artist represent what he sees? How to convey the many impressions which impinge upon the sensorium, how to map the totality of experience, or even the smallest part of it. Part of the fascination of the exhibition lies in the variety of means and modes used to translate direct observation into some kind of representational form.

The first two artists the visitor encounters in the part of the exhibition housed in the museum (the largest of the venues) are Hamish Fulton and Richard Long, who studied together at St Martin’s College of Art in London. It’s the perfect starting point, locating the origins of walking art in the 1960s, a decade which was defined artistically by a spirit of experimentalism and adventure; a wilful breaking away from established traditions. One obvious way of doing this was to move beyond the confines of the gallery space to create works in and from the landscape. Hamish Fulton conducted and early walk in 1967 with fellow students, shuffling along in a cluster from St Martin’s to their chosen destination a short distance away in Soho. It marked a conscious step away from premises where art was officially ‘done’, moving slowly into the chaos of the city and taking time to observe its passing parade. The route was retraced for the 40th anniversary of the event; walking as remembering and reflecting upon time and change. The representation of this walk takes the form of a poster advertising something which has already taken place. Details of time and place are laid out in a clear, bold graphic style, and there is a photo of the original walkers, which also acts as a snapshot of a London moment, with the styles and period details telling the story of the era. It could almost be a flyer for a band that’s recently passed through, yet to be torn down and pasted over with the latest thing.

From local beginnings, Fulton’s path radiated outwards, embracing the whole world. Investigations of the backyard expanded into epic explorations of far flung wilds. From college to the city, from the city to the country beyond its borders, and from that country to other countries, other continents. Just walk on. Eventually he attempted the ultimate ‘walk’: a climb up Everest. This is also presented in a bold graphic style, this time principally in the form of the bright, colourful Tibetan flag, which is placed centrally in the composition. It turns the walk into a political act, a crossing of boundaries and a refusal to recognise their invisible imperatives.

31 Walks is the first of the maps in the exhibition. They take many forms, artists playing with the idea of the map as a diagrammatic representation of landscape, and as a guide to navigating your way through the land; the map as a way of planning journeys or of making them in the imagination, mental travel through inner space. Fulton’s map shows the British and European landmasses as white blanks given shape by the sky blue of the surrounding seas. His walks over the decades are traced with thin, winding lines, intersecting capillaries with arrows indicating the direction of flow. The text compressed into the top right corner (over the unwalked Nordic countries) reads ‘walking coast to coast/coast to river/river to coast/river to river’. Britain in particular is condensed into a watery island, a land defined by what is not land. Imagistic word lists are another means to summon up the impressions of a journey. Fulton reverses the dictum that a picture is worth a thousand words. The repetition and varied placement of the two words ‘river’ and ‘coast’ with their accompanying associations with complex line and expansive border create their own rhythm of motion and connective pattern. The value of the work is in the direct experience as far as Fulton is concerned. ‘A walked line, unlike a drawn line, can never be erased’ he writes in one of the works here. And elsewhere, ‘the artwork cannot represent the experience of a walk’. It can only be alluded to through symbols – words, flags and maps. Beneath the 31 Walks map are printed the words ‘walking into the distance beyond imagination’. Fulton disappears into the all-encompassing haze of oceanic blue. We can only follow him so far, picking up on the traces he leaves behind him.

Fulton takes the art of walking into head-scratching metaphysical zones in which the nature of representation becomes an inseparable part of the work. We will never get to experience the walk, the work itself (although there is a chance to join one of his walks during the exhibition), only the attempt to express something of its essence. It’s a reflection upon the nature of art in general. Richard Long isn’t quite as reductive as his contemporary. Although an early work does pare down the tracks of his Dartmoor walks to a few minimal lines and circles, symbols charting his own territory with no co-ordinates provided to help give the outsider an idea of the topography covered. Long is also more inclined to make his mark on the landscape (and make a record of that marking) as is evinced by England 1968 and A Line In The Himalayas 1975. The linearity of the track ‘drawn’ across the field through walking repeatedly back and forth and the neatly arrayed, lightly coloured row of stones forming a runway to the distant mountain peak are clear indications of human presence and organising thought in the non-linear surroundings of the natural world.

Long uses maps as record and ‘proof’ of his walks as well as for the visual pleasure they afford. If a map is a two-dimensional diagram of a three dimensional space, then Long takes it to the next dimension as well. One of the works displayed here, A Square of Ground 1966, is a small tabletop landscape, a hilltop draining into a stream which traces folded contours as it runs down into the valley. This miniaturised topography, which resembles a geological model, implies a similar miniaturisation of any human figure (including Long himself) within it. It’s a pocket version of the sublime, with observers (us) peering down from above like towering gods.

Long also uses natural materials gathered on his walks, something which Fulton pointedly never does. In this exhibition, he has created two circles from blocks and wedges of stone, laid out on the gallery floor like fragmented wheels. This construction of a work composed of elemental materials in the centre of a ‘refined’ space creates a sense of dislocation, of worlds colliding. The congruent arrangement of raw materials redolent of stark, remote sites, circles which the visitor has to walk around as they make their way through the gallery, summons up a ritualistic atmosphere. It’s entirely appropriate that an exhibition in the neighbouring room displays materials recently found in a Bronze Age burial mound at Whitehorse Hill on Dartmoor.

A good many of the artists in the Walk On exhibition take their cues from Fulton and Long, adapting or updating them according to their own particular experience or intention. Maps are a recurrent feature. Chris Drury’s High Desert Wind superimposes a map of Ladakh on a cross-section of the human heart. It contrasts the spiritual with the corporeal, outer with inner landscapes. Symbolising the yearning for travel and adventure, self-discovery and enlightenment, it is a map of the human heart. Jeremy Wood’s White Horse Hill is a relief map made from cardboard which bursts out from the frame in ridges and contoured rosettes. Its protruding dimensions were drawn from GPS tracking signals. The ancient chalk downland landscape and the marks which man has made upon it (the Uffington White Horse) are thus contrasted with modern satellite technologies. These are technologies which create a distance from the landscapes and places which were once sacred, as the powerful lines of the chalk horse indicate.

Sarah Cullen displays several drawings whose abstract patterns were created using a simple yet ingenious low-tech home-made device. She carries a case on her walks within which a pencil is suspended and weighted over a sheet of paper. The swaying and jogging of the case beneath its handle is translated into the inscribing movement of the pencil. It becomes an index of the effort, changes of direction, ascents and descents involved in the walk, all recorded in the relative densities and vectors of the lines and curves made on the page, the areas which they fill more fully and those which are more sparsely shaded.

There are tabletop landscapes, miniature geological features or built-up maps. Brian Thompson, like Jeremy Wood, uses GPS technology to create layered sculptures whose shapes are determined by the tracked outlines of his walks. These outlines are incrementally enlarged, with the final form resembling a stalagmite mountain outcropping. These accretions equate with the formation of the landscape over time, but also with the intimate interconnection of landscape and memory. Again, the surface skimming devices of modern satellite technology are used to express something more ancient and deeply rooted.

Tracy Hanna’s Hill Walker shines a spotlight on pristine conical mountain of mounded plaster dust. Set within a dimly lit cubicle, it casts a sharp shadow in its wake. The mountain has a dark, penumbral side, the hidden reverse of its brightly illuminated face. Projected onto the slope we see the tiny silhouette of a figure trudging up its steep incline. It never quite reaches the top, fading away to reappear at the base again and begin the ascent once more. Tragi-comic, heroic and ridiculous, this mini-drama – a pocket-sized epic – reflects the British love of the noble failure, as enshrined in the mythologised stories of Scott and Mallory. It’s also a light-hearted embodiment of the human spirit for exploration and adventure or, in more nebulously spiritual terms, its constant aspiration towards some higher state. It’s also just great fun.

Some artists develop personal systems through which they visually codify the impressions gathered on their walks. James Hugonin’s Binary Rhythm takes the colours he has noted during this walks through the Northumbrian landscape and arranges them in grids of tiny squres. The result is a tiled wall, a sampler of the rich variety and infinite contrasts of nature’s palette. Rachel Clewlow records the landmarks passed on her urban walks in a small notebook. The information is laid out with obsessive neatness and symmetry on the page, the writing tiny but perfectly spaced. This information is translated onto the canvas, appearing as a visual analogue through the application of a codifying system. The results are reminiscent of spectral read-outs, Venn diagrams and bar charts (and the colour paintings of Bridget Riley) but have an abstract visual beauty all their own. It’s only through close inspection that you can see the framework they are built on – the artistic x & y axes for the visualised memory graph.

Some artists create a strong narrative structure to give form and meaning to their wandering. Sophie Calle’s photographs are intimate snapshots of her 1980 travels to Venice, capturing mysterious details which imply some personal significance hidden from us. These are put into context by the accompanying text, a first person narration which resembles the inner monologues of a Raymond Chandler PI. Calle decided to follow a stranger she had met briefly in Paris. Her attempts to track him down in Venice, where he had told her was going on a trip, build up a feeling of suspense, and the developing story of obsession and identity crisis resembles a Hitchcock film. The self-conscious manner of its telling is also like a Jean Luc Godard take on the detective genre – Calle as Anna Karina. Calle’s obsessive pursuit drives her to adapt different disguises, becoming a character in her own self-willed drama. Her random quest also makes her a stranger in an unknown city, and the story conveys a feeling of alienation, of being adrift in unknown territory. Maps are also supplied, attempts at providing evidence for way may very well be one big sustained work of fiction.

Walking also lends itself to game-playing, the setting of rules and limitations and the direction of human action and behaviour. Tim Knowles’ Kielder Forest Walk finds him rigorously following a straight line plotted through a dense coniferous plantation. It’s a fool’s journey through a dark land, pointless but not without aim. The unedited 8 hour HD film of his hapless endeavour is only ever likely to be seen in short extracts. A POV perspective of a man in a protective mask plunging relentlessly on through dim, uniform woodlands is only going to hold the attention of even the most determined viewer for a limited period. It’s the sheer single bloody mindedness with which the walk was carried out which makes it admirable in its own perverse way. The artist did it because he could and said he would, and that’s that.

There are others who walk the line, figuratively following in the footsteps of Richard Long. Carey Young directly quotes Long in one of her Body Techniques series of works. She created a line on the rubble strewn outskirts of Dubai, which she then walked along dressed in a grey business suit. She almost seems to merge with her surroundings, as if she had arisen from this wasteground. The glass towers clustering in ever-growing profusion behind her suggest that she is enacting a modern mythological drama, one which marks an ending as well the emergence of a new world. The mark made on this landscape won’t be subject to the gradual erosion of natural forces but will almost instantly be erased by the accelerated temporal demands of global finance.

Catherine Yass’ High Wire sets up a scenario in which walking the line is imperative, a matter of life and death. She filmed the high-wire walker Didier Pasquette crossing a line strung between high-rise blocks on the Red Road estate in Glasgow. The vertiginous experience of the walk is heightened by the use of a POV perspective gained by attaching a camera to Pasquette’s head. The tentative crossing, with long-distance shots taking in the estate and the horizon beyond, symbolises the post-war ideals of high-rise, high-density living, and the decline of the utopian dream which saw the Red Road monoliths erected. The wire-walker must sustain a concentrated balancing-act. If he succeeds, he walks amongst the clouds. If he fails, he falls fast and far onto the hard reality of the concrete world below. The towers have now been demolished, the dream reduced to rubble and then cleared away, dispelled as if it never existed.

Marina Abramovic walked the wavering and in parts semi-erased line of the Great Wall of China in 1988. She started at one end, her partner Ulay at the other. Their meeting in the middle marked the end of their collaboration and of their romantic involvement. It’s not as cold and clinical as it sounds. The original intention had been that they would marry upon meeting. But the complex arrangements and negotiations required to set up the walk took years, and personal circumstances changed in that time. The symbolic heart of the action was thereby turned on its head. An immense symbol of political power and dominance was also transformed into the backdrop for an epic personal drama. There are six photographs of the walk displayed here, each with small drawings of diagrammatic figures scribbled 6 years later placed beneath. These are star doodles from someone who has now attained art celebrity status. They resemble pieces of retrospective graffiti scrawled on the wall. A personal iconography spelling out the affirmation ‘Marina woz ere’.

Bruce Nauman walks the lines of a square in ‘Walking’, taking ungainly backward pigeon steps and making walking look like suspended falling. His video focuses on the most basic of movements, but sets them a little off kilter, making them seem effortful. The masking tape path laid out on the floor looks like a crude practice grid, the walker some alien being just learning how to inhabit a human body. It’s not quite got it right yet.

Francis Alys’ short film Guards records an event in which he created a set of rules for a troop of Coldstream Guards. They enter the square mile of the City of London singly from different directions. When they meet their comrades they begin forming into ranks and march in step. Groups gradually agglomerate and coalesce, the sound of their heavy, tramping shoes increasing in volume and intensity. The aim is to form an 8x8 square. When this is achieved, their instructions are to march to the nearest bridge over the Thames. The film acts as an exploration of the City’s empty weekend alleys and byways. They are sounded out by the explosive ricocheting of the soldiers’ one-two steps. The inherent oddity of the deserted streets is heightened by the anomalous presence of these anachronistically colourful troops. Individually, they appear lost, as if they had just woken up to find themselves in this unfamiliar setting. A battalion from an Imperial past teleported to a concrete future, left to wander dazedly through the maze of the Barbican. They seem touchingly human in these first stages of bewilderment, peering around corners or finding in comfort in sitting and combing their busbies. As soon as they encounter their fellows, however, stereotypical behaviours snap into place, and exaggerated marching steps turn them in to programmed components in a greater whole. There’s something almost lemming-like about their final passage to the river. When the square breaks up, its destination having been reached, the individual components of the marching machine once more disperse, as aimless and lost as they were at the beginning now that their purpose has been fulfilled. There are many dimensions to this playful but gripping work. On a purely visual level, the vivid red of the soldiers’s uniforms provides a pleasing contrast to the prevailing grey of the City buildings. There’s something here of the old Busby Berkeley routines, with their choreographed direction of bodies in synchronised motion shot from above. A stiff , deindividuated dance devoid of all personal expression. Guardsmen with strong nationalistic associations marching through the financial district can’t help but carry symbolic overtones. Are they here to restore order and impose control over a system which has descended into chaos? To drive out predatory jackals and instate a new set of values? The sight and sound of soldiers marching through the old streets of London makes us reflect upon how fortunate we have been not to have experienced such violent disruptions in the recent past. The martial rhythms drum up ghost echoes of alternative histories, time streams superimposed for a brief visionary instant.

Guards takes some of its footage from CCTV cameras, and this emblem of modern surveillance and paranoia features in a number of works. Alys uses it again in Nightwatch, another short film. We watch the nocturnal wanderings of a fox through the empty halls and corridors of the National Portrait Gallery via these remote viewing eyes. The fox sniffs at plinths, walks the length of benches, crawls under cabinets and leaps up onto a table where it curls up to go to sleep. All under the blank regard of the serried ranks of Tudor and Stuart worthies who hang lifelessly on the wall. Like Guards, Nightwatch gains much of its power from placing its subject in an alien environment. The contrast here is between a creature renowned, in an urban context, for scavenging (the ragamuffin urchin of the city’s fauna) and the refined setting it is set loose in. The figures it moves amongst are the kinds of people who would have hunted it down in their day. But they are now immobile, fixed in their immortal aspects. The fox is a brush-tailed blur of restless motion in the still hush of the museum after dark, following whatever trails it is picking up on the parquet flooring. There’s a certain tension as to whether it will knock a bust from its pedestal or piss on a portrait of the queen. The fox’s folkloric role as trickster and wily outsider gives an extra resonance to the film.

Some artists order the memories of their travels through the traditional holiday means of the slide show or the collection of mementoes. Atul Bhalla’s Yamuna Walk shows a series of pictures of a walk along the banks of a river which passes through New Delhi. This progression of images and the contrasts they throw up portrays the different aspects of the river, the co-existence of seemingly incompatible qualities. It is sacred, and industrial and agricultural resource, a workplace, a site of grandiose and politically charged engineering works, and a dumping ground. A list of words at the end are like captions which have floated free from the scenes they were intended to explain. This stream of words trigger recollections of the images which have passed before us. It’s an associative flow which sums up the bewildering chaos of the landscape Bhalla depicts in all its decay and fecundity.

Julian Opie's cover for Saint Etienne's How We Used to Live
Juian Opie’s Summer is based on a walk through the countryside in France. The artist took a regular series of photographs which became the basis for a slowly progressing slide show of paintings. Opie’s landscapes are characteristically simplified, reduced to outline forms filled with undifferentiated colour and with little distinguishing detail within. It is an edgeless Arcadia painted in shades of green, and with the images fading gently into one another, we glide through it with frictionless ease. The soft murmuration of ambient music accompanies our dreamy drift. Objects have a blurry lack of definition. We can recognise trees, but any finer species distinction is impossible. Rounded rectangles looming before us could be haystacks or they could be standing stones. It’s almost like a journey through a Batsford book cover. This is a landscape in which nothing can hurt, and everything is perceived through an anaesthetised veil. It also reminded me of some of the lovely covers Opie did for Saint Etienne at the time of their Sound of Water album.

Alex Finlay’s The Road North: The 53 Stations documents a journey through Scotland he made with his travelling companion Ken Cockburn. Their progress is memorialised by a collection of whisky miniatures, each a distillation of place and associated feeling. These feelings, records of a moment (the moment after knocking back the local malt) are expressed in the form of compact verses or epigrams, written on labels and attached to the bottles. They pay homage to the haiku written by Basho during his journey on the Narrow Road to the Deep North. One reads, for example, ‘approaching the bridge my fingers can’t help feeling for change’. The bottles may also be a nod to the many inns depicted in Hiroshige’s woodblock print series 53 Stations on the Tokaido Road, which often have landladies positioned outside almost forcibly dragging passing travellers into their establishments.

The lure of the northern wilds is felt by many artists. Richard Long and Hamish Fulton both headed for the Himalayas. Iceland is also a popular destination. Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson went on a ten-day walk through the north of the island. A series of pictures on a concertinaed length of card is like one of the fold-out postcards you used to be able to get if you had more to say than would fit on just the one side. The title, Home, suggests that it might indeed be something to send back from far flung regions. The pictures depict cairns, markers and also perhaps memorials. They could represent guiding posts, reassuring the traveller that they aer on the right track; or reminders of the lost, those who wandered from the path and never found it again. They are ambiguous and silent forms, tightly packed and self-contained, enshrouded in icy mist.

Dan Holdsworth also travelled to Iceland, and his lightbox image is like a huge projected slide. It is blown up to a scale intended to convey something of the sublime nature of the chill volcanic landscape. The eye is drawn into its mysterious depths, and you almost feel as if you could drift into it. The negative inversion of light and dark amplifies the uncanny spirit of the place, lending it an unworldly ambience. The soft illumination suffusing the glass plate from an obscure source behind serves to deepen the unfathomable shadows, radiating a dark light.

The words Walk On conjure the lyrical invocations of Rogers and Hammerstein and Neil Young in the songs You’ll Never Walk Alone and Walk On. The one anthemic and prayerful, the other resigned and dismissive of critical carping. They both confront the obstacles and disappointments of life, recognise the inevitability of change and determine to persist whatever happens. Walking is an act of hope, of openness to the unfolding of new experiences and encounters. The artists here embrace it in a variety of ways, displaying a great breadth imagination and vision. So walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart and you’ll never walk alone. You’ll never walk alone.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Great piece, Jez, brilliantly covering a very diverse exhibition. Was planning to do a blog piece myself but put off the challenge - will now just redirect to yours! I had to visit twice to cover all the venues - and only saw the final two venues this weekend, combining my visit with the College of Art's open day. The exhibition(s)is well worth a visit and there is only a week left ...