abstract art, a systems view

Doing the Whitworth Walk

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We had done some walking ourselves, in Derbyshire, and I had also recently seen Marek Tobolewski‘s work at Tarpey Gallery, where he seemed, in part, to be taking Paul Klee‘s advice about “taking a line for a walk”, so walking had already become a bit of a theme, when my brother and I visited the Whitworth, Manchester.

As well as the Flailing Trees and the film(s) 1395 Days Without Red, we saw Projections: Works from The Artangel Collection, art work by Francis Alys, Atom Egoyan, Tony Oursler and Catherine Yass. And there were walking themes! High Wire, 2008 by Catherine Yass features a four screen video presentation of a walk on a very high wire, (the wire stretched between two tower blocks at The Red Road Estate, in Glasgow) by Didier Pasquette.  I was on the edge of my metaphorical seat (I was actually standing at the time) as he edged his way onto the wire, walked about half way and was then forced back by the buffeting wind. The four videos showing different views, from different perceptual positions, includes one filmed by the walker, a camera being attached to his head. They are each dramatic in different ways, each supplying a different description.

Different too are the walks described by Francis Alys in his Seven Walks, 2005. Whilst I view I am walking, retracing his steps in my imagination as I look at various documents and maps recording walks in London made by the artist, for example walking only on the sunny side of the street, or on the shady side of the street. I find I get engrossed and fascinated as I study drawings, notes, lists, and photographs, along with photocopies that seem connected to the walks through something similar to the psychoanalytical technique of free association. It seems a lot like what happens whenever you take a walk, you free-associate as you go. Ideas, images come to mind only to be replaced or built upon by others vaguely related to the sights, sounds and feelings of the ‘external’ walk.

There are videos too, The Nightwatch is an installation of multiple CCTV screens, placing the viewer in the perceptual position of security personnel at the National Portrait Gallery, watching an urban fox make its way through the labyrinth of galleries. The fox’s walk is also documented as a storyboard and drawn on a plan of the galleries. Seeing this line taken for a walk, I free-associate, remembering Paul Klee and Marek Tobolewski.

In the video Railings, a man walks through the Regency squares of London, drumming a stick along the cast-iron railings, the walls, the pillars at the doorways of the Georgian (?) houses, even at one stage setting off a car alarm. Screened in trio, with a staggered timeframe, like a round, the rhythms become a cacophony, an auditory record of the walk being shown visually.

Years ago, when Clement Greenberg was charting the ‘progress’ of visual art towards the flattened picture plane I seem to remember that, as well as glorying in the replacement of the window-on-the-world with abstraction, he also recognised it as a loss. (It is a loss that many painters have since been unwilling to make, hence the return with a vengeance of figurative painting since modernism.) At the Whitworth today I saw sculpture, figurative painting and drawing both traditional and contemporary, prints, photography, video, film and conceptual art documented in a variety of ways and there was ‘sound art’ too. What I didn’t see anywhere on my Whitworth walk was an abstract painting and though there was much to enjoy, and I did enjoy it, I experienced this conspicuous absence as a great loss!


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