Visual Arts: “Walking Sculpture” at the deCordova — The Innovative Art of the Stroll

Walking, the deCordova’s fascinating and wonderfully worked out exhibition suggests, is deeply subversive of the status quo.

Walking Sculpture 1967-2015, at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln and Concord MA, through September 13.

William Pope.L (American, born 1955), The Great White Way, 22 miles, 9 years, 1 Street (Whit ney version #2) , 2001, video, 6:35 minutes, Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell - Innes & Nash, New York, NY, Photo: Clements Photography and Design, Boston

William Pope L., “The Great White Way, 22 miles, 9 years, 1 Street (Whitney version #2),” 2001, video. Photo: Clements Photography and Design, Boston

By Peter Walsh

Some thirty-five years ago, owing to a completely unanticipated, bureaucratic set of screw ups, the British sculptor Richard Long spent a few days at my Cambridge apartment while working on an installation in a local museum. Long was already well known, since the age of 22, as an artist who made art works out of his walks, many of which were epic. So it wasn’t a big surprise, when, in the calm of the weekend, he proposed that we take a walk into Boston.

The day was sunny and beautiful and the walk took several hours, crossing the Charles at the Museum of Science, following along the waterfront in the North End, over Beacon Hill to the Common, and back towards Cambridge skirting the riverfront near Massachusetts General Hospital. Long was always looking and, though generally a quiet man, frequently talking.

He admired the last remains of urban decay along the 19th-century wharfs, then already mostly converted into high-end condos and watched, for several fascinated minutes, a neighborhood baseball game near the river. He talked about artists, his contemporaries, that he admired (including his classmates Gilbert and George) and ones he detested (who shall remain nameless), about how baseball relates to cricket, the cricket he played at home, and the deep, almost ritualistic, roots the sport has in English village life. He answered my questions about his home city of Bristol and what he had heard about Boston before he visited. We also pondered whether or not it was moral for artists to charge high prices for their work. (Long, then about thirty-five, was doing well financially from sales of his work and was apparently feeling a bit uncomfortable about it.) I told him the answer I had heard sculptor Carl Andre give to a similar question from a college classmate: “If I don’t take the money, the dealers or the collectors will.”

All this was just, outwardly, two people, who don’t know each other very well and did not particularly expect to meet again, out for a casual stroll with light conversation on a pleasant New England afternoon. But, perhaps because Long was an artist who went out on walks as both an avocation and livelihood, it was something more than that. For whatever reason, that walk, more than any other, has stuck with me in vivid detail ever after.

Long’s work does not appear in the deCordova’s important, fascinating and wonderfully worked out exhibition, Walking Sculpture 1967 – 2015. But he does figure early on in curator Lexi Lee Sullivan’s catalogue essay as “the consummate walking artist” and “the prodigal son of Britain’s Romantic Walking tradition.” From Long’s set-point, the show opens out: reaching through the ancient past and into the political present, strolling across distant continents and back to suburban Lincoln, Massachusetts.

The show’s starting point, 1967, is arbitrary but well chosen. The year was a moment when various movements and trends came together and crossed international borders: Arte Povera, Earth Art, neo-Dadaism, Conceptual Art, Performance Art, Political Art — a cluster of overlapping aesthetics that sought to knock art off its pedestal, defeat its supporting role in establishment culture, and bring it closer to everyday life. In some ways, walking was the perfect medium for these impulses: walking requires no special skills, it can be done by anyone who is reasonably fit at almost any time and in almost any place human beings inhabit, and it inspires nearly endless streams of narrative and meaning beyond the simple act of self-locomotion. Walking, the deCordova exhibition suggests, is also deeply subversive of the status quo.

Chronologically, Waling Sculpture begins with the Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Walking Sculpture (1967/68), which inspired the show’s title. In this piece, Pistolletto rolls a giant ball of newspapers through the streets of his native Turin. The work is represented in the exhibition by a giant newspaper ball and a black and white video of a 1968 recreation of the event (one of many made in different locations over the years), in which at times the ball rides around in the back of a sports car. The effect is both subversive and festive, recalling the antics of the classic Fellini film La Dolce Vita, especially the famous sequence in which a giant statue of Christ floats over the outskirts of Rome, supported by a helicopter. It anticipates the massive student demonstrations, part revolt, part carnival, that swept Western Europe in 1968.

Installation view, Walking Sculpture 1967 – 2015 , deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln, MA , Photograph by Clements Photography and Design, Boston

Installation view, “Walking Sculpture 1967-2015,” deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. Photo: Clements Photography and Design, Boston.

Other videoed walks in the show are more explicitly political. In Simon Faithful’s 0’00 Navigation (2009) the artist strolls along the Greenwich Meridian, the starting point for measuring global navigation and time. Sullivan describes the effect as “comic,” like a dogged early Buster Keaton movie, as Faithful apparently swims the English Channel, climbs up the white Dover cliffs, scales fences unto a train yard and crawls under parked box cars, crosses private gardens and, at one point, scrambles out someone’s kitchen window, as he attempts to stick faithfully to the arbitrary line, a relic of British imperialism and the country’s domination of the world’s seas.

In Francis Alÿs’ The Green Line: Sometimes Doing Something Poetic Can Become Political and Sometimes Doing Something Political Can Become Poetic (2004), also traces an arbitrary line, this time the Armistice Line marked in green ink through maps of Israel and Jerusalem in 1949. In the video, Alÿs walks the physical line through Jerusalem with a dripping can of green paint, underlining the line’s tragic absurdity in marking out Israel from occupied Palestine. A voice over interview deepens the sense of hopelessness as it describes the sad state of the relationship between Palestinians and Israelis.

In Walk (Square) (2011), Melanie Manchot marches a thousand school children into Deichtorhallen Square, which lies between two former flower market halls in Hamburg, now used to exhibit contemporary art. Sullivan describes the piece as “walking as a means of reclaiming space” and says the work was made partly in homage to Bruce Nauman’s Walking in an Exaggerated Manner around the Perimeter of a Square (1967-68), a classic early performance film that is also included in the exhibition.

The wavy edge between the actual walking and the documentation thereof comes up again and again in the exhibition. Boston-based Catherine D’Ignazio, a.k.a. kanarinka documents her jog along Boston’s confusing network of “evacuation routes,” set up by federal law after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, with the recorded sound of her breathing in It Takes 154,000 Breaths to Evacuate Boston (2007-09).

Several works in the show uses walks as a means to measure, delineate, or reconstruct urban space. Joachim Koestler’s haunting The Kant Walks (#2, 3, 4, 5) (2003), documents in four photographs his walks through the erased city of Königberg, once celebrated as the home of the great 18th-century philosopher Emmanuel Kant, who used his walks around the city to formulate some of the major principles of modern thought. Stripped of its Prussian history by war and deliberate destruction by the occupying Soviets after World War II, the city is now the ghostly center of Kaliningrad, part of the Kaliningrad Oblast, a bizarre remnant of East Prussia that is now a land-locked island of Russian territory.

To make his Medium No. 1 (Manhattan) (2008-09), Tyler Coburn walked each Manhattan Street from First to Eighty-Second with invited friends and acquaintances. Their conversations and reminiscences were transmitted into a thermal fax which created a long, murky, continuous scroll of related, but disjoined, narrative texts. Sullivan compares the result on display to the legendary single scroll Jack Kerouac created when he wrote his iconic travel novel On the Road (supposedly to save the time it took to reload the paper as Kerouac composed in a manic, drug-induced semi-trance). Sullivan also cites French social scholar Michel de Certeau’s theory that “pedestrian movements ‘make up the city’” and not the familiar bird’s eye views of streets, buildings, and infrastructure that assert the domination of governments, corporations, and institutions.

Francis Alÿs , "The Green Line: Sometimes Doing Something Poetic Can Become Political and Sometimes Doing Something Political Can Become Poetic, " 2004. In collaboration with Philippe Bellaiche, Rachel Leah Jones, and Julien Devaux, video. Photo: Clements Photography and Design, Boston

Francis Alÿs , “The Green Line: Sometimes Doing Something Poetic Can Become
Political and Sometimes Doing Something Political Can Become Poetic,” 2004. In collaboration with Philippe Bellaiche, Rachel Leah Jones, and Julien Devaux, video. Photo: Clements Photography and Design, Boston.

The show’s admirable sense of geographic scope moves far afield and close to home, incorporating the work of several Boston-based artists and including several pieces made especially for the deCordova exhibition.

Visitors to Walking Sculpture should allow plenty of time to see it and not just because so much of its content is in longish films and videos. The subject matter is highly accessible but also rich and dense, embracing contexts that moves off in every direction. The exhibition points out, among other things, how deeply fundamental walking is to thought itself and to human communication. You can spin out a steady stream of analogies on your own. Actors, for example, are taught to learn the lines of Shakespeare by walking around because Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter is embedded in the walking pace his performers used. One of the primary traditions of classical thought, the so-called Peripatetic (or “walking around”) School, was named after the legend that Aristotle walked around as he taught. And the references go on and on.

Thus Walking Sculpture has deep roots and endless branches. Near the end of her essay, Sullivan quotes Richard Long: “If you undertake a walk, you are echoing the whole history of mankind… Despite the many traditions of walking… it is always possible to walk in new ways.”

Peter Walsh has worked for the Harvard Art Museums, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Wellesley College, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, and the Boston Athenaeum, among other institutions. His reviews and articles on the visual arts have appeared in numerous publications and he has lectured widely in the United States and Europe. He has an international reputation as a scholar of museum studies and the history and theory of media.

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