An Equilibrium Not of This World, by Jane Connarty

Posted on Wednesday 31st July, 2013

An Equilibrium Not of This World

“I nod and nod to my own shadow and thrust 
A mountain down and down”

Climbing Suilven’ by Norman MacCaig

 

Katri Walker’s An equilibrium not of this world presents a sonic and visual evocation of a journey through a landscape, and provides an intense and radiant and thought provoking meditation on running, the body, endurance, and humanity’s innate ties to the natural world.

In 2012 as part of NVA’s Speed of Light, NVA and Edinburgh Art Festival invited Katri Walker to make a new work that would explore the culture of endurance running.  Speed of Light (1) was devised in response to the landscape of Arthur’s Seat, the iconic hill at the heart of Edinburgh. It took place over twenty nights in August 2012, and was based on the interaction of human movement, light and sound over specific terrain – with hundreds of walkers and hill runners taking part each night.  An integral part of the making of the work was an enquiry into ‘why we run?’(2) , which through artists’ commissions, debate, and research with runners, sought to explore that powerful and compelling relationship between the runner and the land.

Artist Katri Walker was more than ideally suited to the role of collaborator in this endeavour.  Her work combines elements of portraiture, documentary and poetic reflection, and demonstrates a deep attentiveness to people, their environments, and their inner worlds. She is a quiet and empathetic observer, distilling the magic and extraordinary that can be found in the everyday.  Representation of landscape is a key theme of the artist’s recent work, reflecting both her interest in the cultural and emotional ties and associations that we develop with place and geography, but also questioning the ways in which images of landscape are constructed, and over-time become defined or fixed through artists’ representations, further reproduced, re-interpreted and disseminated through advertising, cinema, television and the internet etc.  In addition to these key interests and the qualities of her practice, Katri brings to the work the perspective of a serious hill runner, who, having grown up in Edinburgh, and studied at Glasgow School of Art, is a devotee of the hills that lie in easy reach from the cites of the central belt of Scotland such as The Pentland Hills, The Campsie Fells and The Trossachs.

This new work made in response to the commission takes its title (3) from acclaimed Chinese geographer Yi Fu Tuan, a pioneer in the field of humanist geography, who married conventional geography with philosophy, art, psychology and religion, to talk about human beings search for the ideal environment and a connection with the world around us, and Walker’s process is grounded in this inter-disciplinary approach.  Her research was undertaken in this spirit of inter-disciplinary enquiry, following multiple threads of research. Talking – and of course running – with fellow hill runners – she found inspiration in the complexities of individual identities, and correspondences between their running – and working or vocational lives (e.g. runner and mechanic Kenny Valentine, or runner and professional musician Elspeth Luke).  To better understand the physiological processes at play, and to achieve her artistic vision, she also sought the expertise of scientists – specialists in diagnostic imaging technologies – accessing microscopic moving imagery of the inner mechanics of the body under endurance.  Her way of working is open and collaborative, avoiding didactic narrative, and building a sense of trust and engagement with participants including those that she portrays. In this case the resulting work does not take the form of conventional documentary or portrait of runners, however it is infused with glimpsed reflections of some of those individuals encountered along the way who have helped shape a final vision for the work.

The work is structured as a video-diptych in which images across two screens are aligned in careful opposition and alliance, building up a rich choreography of correspondences and exchange.  In the opening of the work, the left-hand screen frames a fine line rising and falling across a digital graph – a representation of breath inhaled and exhaled – which seems to mimic and merge with the horizon line of the mountain range on the opposite screen; tiny star-like pulses of light course through fragile arteries, as if trying to cross-over into the tangles of sun bleached brackens and quivering grasses; and in a third pairing delicate cell-like forms expand and dissolve mirroring slowly shifting cloudscapes pierced through by sunlight.  In these representations of landscape and body Walker demonstrates intense attention to detail and meticulous editing skills.  With clarity of image and rare mindfulness, she foregrounds and renders compelling and wondrous the small treasures of the physical world.  These sequences, conjoining microscopic views of the body and studies taken from the natural world, draw attention to inherent dualities and opposition, but overall crystalize a sense of wholeness and continuum.

Sound is critical to the experience of this work, and Walker’s soundscape, encompassing sections of a luminous work of composer Judith Weir, powerfully establishes the narrative arc of the journey itself, and strengthens this sense of inter-connectedness and a multi-sensory and multi-dimensional evocation of time and place. Dissonant sound waves rise and fall with the mountainscape and radiograph; mechanical plates slide together and apart, in a finely tuned revolving performance that keeps time with the beating of a heart; and as the journey nears the hill’s summit, fragments of melody are carried away on the air, leaving heartbeat and breath as the only audible sounds, heightening the sense of interiority and solitude.

Views of the landscape are set alongside the animated figure of a woman walking or running.  The body portrayed in black and white, is set in profile against an objective grid background, referencing the studies of 19th century photographic pioneer Eadweard Muybridge, whose stop motion photographs of people and animals in motion aimed to capture impressions of movement, anticipating the development of moving image technology and cinema.  In representing a runner’s eye perspective of the hill, Walker makes use of today’s moving image technologies to capture a different impression of human movement through space, and using steadicam equipment to powerful effect she conjures an image of liberation, almost weightless flight across the contours of the hill that belies the effort and extra endurance involved in the filming process.

In her proposal Katri Walker speaks of the nature of endurance:  “Endurance of any sort implies a degree of oneness, possibly enjoyment or at the very least acceptance, of a certain state of being or circumstance, be that by choice or otherwise.  The expression of it tends to be quiet, sometimes understated, often unnoticed, stoic even.  It might be joyful or painful or both, and … it will more often than not be a private, internal experience.”  The finished work, its remarkable evocation of a run, and the path travelled, with slow steady ascent, the elation of traversing plateau and reaching summit, and then a hurtling, free-falling descent, reflects a deep and real experience of the inner struggle as runner or walker pits themselves against mountain or hill – a struggle so beautifully articulated in Norman MacCaig’s account of an ascent of Mount Suilven, quoted at the opening of this text.  The steady pacing, repetitive movements of Walker’s figure, the rise and fall of breath, the rhythmic treading of legs, all allude to that stoic struggle, the mix of pain and pleasure in the daily grind of training.

Katri Walker’s work captures the luminosity of the hills on a perfect summer’s day – rare blue skies, distant mountains, intense greenery cut through by whitened stony paths, and island-scattered lochs sparkling below in sunlight.  No other runner, walker, not even a sheep in sight – the isolation of the landscape, and the solitude of the state of being is complete.  As an artist Walker draws attention to the power of the image to frame what we see, even direct our way of seeing, to construct an idealized or romantic image, where landscape can stand as perfect signifier for emotional state, national or cultural identity.  But there is also an element of the self-portrait in this work, invested as it is with a personal and emotional response to both place, or places, and to thinking about running, endurance and what it means.  More than anything this dazzling work instills in this viewer a sense of longing – a longing to be there, in that place, in the moment, reaching for that heightened state of being, and to feel again that child-like euphoric free-falling flight of the hill runner.

 

Jane Connarty is an independent visual arts researcher and producer and was Associate Director of NVA’s Speed of Light, 2012

 

Footnotes

  1. NVA’s Speed of Light has subsequently been presented in Yokohama, Japan; Salford, UK and will be presented throughout the Ruhr, Germany in October 2013.
  2. Participating runners told NVA some of the reasons why they run –including: ‘running gives me the space to sort things out in my head.’; ‘ I began running to lose weight.’ ‘it’s primal.’; ‘Running helps me to cope with life.’;  ‘Running is disengagement, repetition and isolation.  It’s meditative and soulful; mesmerizing and fluid.  But turn a corner, find a hill and it becomes a gutsy air grabbing gravel scraping challenge about finding the reserves of energy both in your muscles and in your heart.
  3. “Human beings have persistently searched for the ideal environment. How it looks varies from one culture to another but in essence it seems to draw on two antipodal images: the garden of innocence and the cosmos. ….So we move from one to the other; … seeking for a point of equilibrium that is not of this world.”  Yi-Fu Tuan,Topophilia. A Study of Environmental Perceptions, Columbia University Press, 1974, p. 248

 

The above essay was commissioned to accompany the exhibition An Equilibrium Not of this World, presented at the Edinburgh Art Festival 2013.  The essay is presented alongside a commissioned poem by Lauri Walker in the exhibition pamphlet which may be downloaded here as a PDF.