Walk On: 40 years of art walking from Richard Long to Janet Cardiff
Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland
1 June - 31 August 2013
Review by Rebecca Travis
The act of walking is perhaps one of the most basic we undertake. It’s seen as a definitive marker in our early development and, from the moment we master the movement, it becomes an unconscious act, rarely questioned or challenged. The exhibition Walk On, currently on show at the NGCA Sunderland, gathers a vast array of artists for whom walking has become the focus of their practice, from documentations of journeys, maps and alterations to landscapes, to films, walking tours and the presentation of found ‘souvenirs’.
The exhibition is impressive in its scale and offers a sprawling viewing experience that is quite a feat to view in one sitting. The journey begins with Richard Long, perhaps the father of British land art. His subtle interventions into landscapes across the world are broadly known and have been imitated to the point that unfortunately their impact has somewhat diminished. However, to leave him out of a show centred on walking would be a glaring omission, and he sets a precedent for the show, which although diverse in media and presentation, tends to focus on the more obvious variations of the theme. Long’s documentation photography is undeniably beautiful and the fact he has been so widely referenced is a sign of his influence upon the cohesion of art and landscape. In a reversal of situations his collection of found boulders brings the landscape to us, allowing a more scientific study of the objects displaced from their natural habitat.
Some artists have created inventions to aid in their explorations. Sarah Cullen’s portable pencil drawing device shakily records her movements across differing terrains. Next door, Tim Knowles’ absurd wind vane helmet dictates his course via wind direction. The two exhibits play well off each other, one a method of recording, the other a means of finding direction. A large mid-section of the exhibition focuses further on the instigation, mapping and recording of journeys, while a room of painted responses sees the meticulously colour-coded works of Rachel Clewlow placed with the loosely textured canvases of Brendan Stuart Burns inspired by his relationship with the Pembrokeshire Coast. Many of the works play on romantic human associations with landscapes, walking, wanderlust and exploration, and often familiar ground is repeatedly covered albeit in a variety of media and styles.
A less romantic interpretation is provided by the video work of Joseph Bateman. Shot with a dystopian gaze onto today’s world, Bateman plays the character of the wandering outsider, collecting road kill debris from motorway hard-shoulders and seemingly struggling to survive in the contemporary domain, resorting to almost animalistic activity, beyond the realms of social normality.
The physical motion of walking is perhaps most challenged by Bruce Nauman as he breaks it down into a series of distortedly slow movements in his 1967 work ‘Walking in an Exaggerated Manner around the Perimeter of a Square’. The result is oddly balletic, camp, uneasily over done. The alluringly simple film and idea serves to subvert the natural practice and rhythm of the movement, turning it into a concentrated theatrical performance. Emerging artist Bradley Davies also focuses on a direct performative play with the act of walking, mimicking the gait of people around him, highlighting the individual traits we bring to a universally understood movement and producing his work in an urban and public domain.
Walk On meanders between loosely connected works and more clearly curated sections. As a survey of artistic practice under the thematic arc of ‘walking’ it offers an accessible and wide reaching selection of materials and practices, yet few of the works really question or subvert the notion beyond a general understanding or expectation. The works that do will be the ones that retain a lasting impression over the rest in this epically scaled exhibition, spanning four decades of artist activity.