Thursday, June 18, 2009

The art of walking - two rambles about London

Here are my top tips for creative walking enthusiasts in London. Both have a foot in the art gallery and a foot firmly outside.

Although I have probably seen before the majority of Richard Long's work that is currently on show in major retrospective 'Heaven and Earth', I found its expansion into the large spaces of Tate Britain unexpectedly moving. Perhaps it was the humbling effect of a walk through a life dedicated to using his body, the land, the rhythms of sun, moon, tide, walking and resting as his art. Or perhaps it was the chime with my own solitary walks that moved me, I'm not sure.

The show is fascinating for revealing the evolution of ways he has represented his walking art in a gallery space - 'the knowledge of my actions, in whatever form, is the art.' (I find his gallery-specific pieces much less engaging and appealing.) His walks, which first began just as the first human steps were taken on the moon, were first communicated as photographs; later as a line on a map; and then a series of words capturing a narrative of discovery along a route. His work is conceptual to some extent but, at least for me, totally translatable into a sense of interaction with place. Also see Robert Macfarlane's excellent article on Long for the Guardian.

Second top tip: the newly refurbished Whitechapel Gallery which celebrates the democratisation of art and doesn't charge for entry, has an almost hidden gem, in addition to its less hidden ones. A tiny white card next to a pile of books in the lobby alerted me to a site-specific audio walk by Janet Cardiff and George Bures-Miller devised in 1999.

Borrow an MP3 player from the reception to be guided by the compelling voice of Janet Cardiff into a physical journey around the lanes and alleys of the East End. The world you find yourself in between headphones, and between real walls is a curious mixture created by binaural sound recording and the real sounds of the places you share with Cardiff. A narrative begins to emerge about a woman with red hair, running from something.

I was never quite sure whether the overheard conversations happened in her time or in my own. She has an acute way of predicting one's own observations. There's a wonderful moment where you are guided into a church to sit in its cool and quiet. As the doors bashed behind me, for real, and on the headphones, I was struck by a smell of incense 'Mmm, smells like incense', said the intimate voice in my ear. When I took off the headphones to walk back to the gallery, I found myself highly attuned to the peculiar qualities and possible meanings of what I heard and saw.

I listened to many of Cardiff's audio walks on her website when I tutored workshops related to the Fruitmarket Edinburgh's exhibition of her work last year, but this was my first opportunity to experience the richness and mystery of walking real spaces with her, and the powerful suggestiveness of two sets of sound.

Highly recommended!

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