Robert Wilson’s ‘Walking’

Near the end of the twentieth century, Milan Kundera wrote about ‘a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting’. Kundera’s paean to considered action, Slowness, was written in 1995, the year the dot-com bubble began its ascent. In 2011, Tom Chatfield contributed to a series of books developed by the London-based enterprise, The School of Life, with a volume titled, How to Thrive in the Digital Age. According to Chatfield, we need both ‘wired’ and ‘unwired’ time if we are to flourish in our technologically mediated lives.

Robert Wilson’s Walking, presented by the Norfolk & Norwich Festival in 2012, was an adversary to wired time. I was required to surrender my smart technology and timekeeping device before I set out on my slow march through the North Norfolk coast. Initially, I was guided by an ‘angel’, who walked beside me while I established my tortoise-like pace. ‘Have you found the rhythm?’, he asked. I replied affirmatively and he retreated. I was left alone with a feeling not unlike being sent away for my first day at school.

I passed through a series of installations. In the first, a low-frequency rumble from a funnel-like excavation filled my ears. When I continued my journey, I experienced an increased sensitivity to high frequencies. It was as if the rumble had prepared my hearing for the high-pitched sounds of whispering reeds, which lined a narrow stream. This acute feeling of aural ‘lightness’ was matched by the vibrant sight of zinc-white stones in a neat line that marked my path through the grassy fields.

The effect of each installation was a strange dichotomy between landscape and art-object. On the one hand, there was a continuity between materials (wood, reed, clay) and location. On the other, there was a tension between simple, geometric design and the complex organicism of nature. My consciousness was clouded by thoughts about art – its theories and histories – before it was brought back to an unfettered awareness of nature. So whilst my journey encouraged meditation, it also set up conceptual problems that needed some form of mental resolution. On seeing the second installation ahead of me (a long corridor created by two wooden walls, open at each end and overhead), I found my attention shifting away from the sound of the water reeds towards a short history of corridors in American art, from Nauman to Wilson.

I took the last of my steps through the corridor and made my ingress from art into nature. It is impossible to describe the gravitas and sense of rebirth created by the acoustic change as I left that reverberant passageway to walk again on the echoless field. The wooden walls seemed to say, ‘You, just you’, as I was ejected from their care. Shortly after, when I had been walking long enough to lose my rhythm, I noticed that ‘walking’ had been written on the white stones in black script. Suitably chastized, I let my thoughts pass by like clouds, reset my attention on my body and regained my slow pace.

Outside each installation I saw things with intensity. I was alert to line and to the play of parallax error as I walked the waterways and passed through reeds towards open farmland. I was acutely aware of the increasing scale of things: a snail, a tree, a sand dune. But my thoughts about art returned. I wondered how much of what I saw was artistic intervention. The white stones had been placed with care. What about the scaffolding on the horizon? The discarded ironwork in the forest? The fallen logs? I thought about the casuistry of installation, the deceit of the uncanny that captures and enthralls us.

The intermission of this play took the form of an apple and a bottle of water in a forest glade. A celestial soundtrack of ethereal ‘voices’ emitted from pine trees. ‘Over there you will see your special chair’, said the angel who met me on entry. I sat for a little while, part of a commune of fellow walkers in a dell of stillness. And when it was time, I was collected by another angel and sent on my way: ‘do you think you have the rhythm again?’.

Part One had been a carefree ramble through fields. Part Two presented a discernible narrative of danger. ‘The stones have been replaced by sticks, which will help you on your journey’, said my guide as she released me to fend off the perils of the playground. I began to walk through a pine forest. Vertical sticks punctured the ground in counterpoint with shard-like branches that I had to avoid on winding my awkward pathway through the trees. Out of the forest, I saw sand dunes and the third installation: an inverted cone with a human-sized circular entrance at the base. Located between the forest and the sea, it made an elegant silouhette against the sky, its simplicity and scale the unmistakable theatre of Robert Wilson. I crawled inside and passed through a sound installation. At the exit, another angel waited to take me to the seashore.

A row of identical chair-like contraptions sat along the beach at regular intervals. My art-historical musings began for a final time when I was reminded of Einstein on the Beach, with its suspended chairs and knee plays. ‘Would you like to have a lie down?’, asked the final angel. I stood on a ledge and rested my back against a plank of wood. Slowly, he winched the chair-platform backwards through ninety degrees until I could no longer see the horizon. It was a strange sensation to feel the force of gravity moving from my head to my chest. I lay there for some time and watched the sky. There were no clouds.

© N.G. Brown 2012

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