The upcoming exhibition WALK! presents an overview of contemporary art that intertwines walking with the challenges of our time.
From February 18 to May 22, 2022, the Schirn is dedicating a large international group exhibition to the hitherto rarely considered facets of walking in contemporary art. With photographs, video works, performances, collages, drawings, paintings, and sculptures, the exhibition WALK! presents an overview of the spectrum of contemporary artistic positions that aesthetically intertwine the act of moving on foot with the challenges of our time.
The act of walking has gained new significance as a social phenomenon in the twenty-first century. At the core of activities such as strolling or hiking are sensory experiences that enable a connection with nature and the environment as well as a new experience of the self. At the same time, they are related to social issues of global ecological, geopolitical, and economic change. As an artistic practice, walking promotes the idea of a space that is structurally connected to movement, encompassing mental and virtual spaces in addition to urban and rural environments.
The aimless wandering of the flâneur, a figure who Charles Baudelaire declared to be an artist, is tantamount to a critique of consumerism—an aspect that would be further elaborated in the 1950s psychogeographical experiments of the Situationists, for whom the flâneur’s strolls became a tool for the reappropriation of urban space. Walking Art, which in the 1960s and 70s develops alongside Land Art primarily in outdoor spaces, focuses on the walker’s immediate experience of the environment. The artistic movement challenges the notion of cultural progress as a domination of nature by turning walking into the material of its work. Exploring and expanding upon Walking Art, the contemporary works in the exhibition extend artistic walking into the social realm. They reflect current debates around issues such as globalization, migration, and climate change, and embark on a remapping of public space. The exhibition WALK! brings together around one hundred works by more than forty international artists, whose work essentially focuses on the various aspects of walking.
In his videos, Sebastián Díaz Morales visualizes how spaces become psychogeographically condensed and rambling walks allow for the opening up of alternative perspectives. The artist assembles images of cities and recreates them in the form of imagined geographies. His videos follow his protagonists as they walk through these magical-realist worlds. Rahima Gambo, whose documentary works highlight themes of postcolonialism, identity, and politics in Nigeria, undertakes a psychogeographic exploration of the cities of Lagos, Maiduguri, and Abuja. The videos and collages are reflections of the artist’s inner cartography and incorporate sites that have been attacked by the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram. Francis Alÿs uses performative actions on his walks to weave new narratives into urban structures, which in turn become part of the city’s multiple histories. One of his videos documents a multi-day performance in which the artist dragged a small magnetic toy dog on wheels through the streets of Mexico City’s Centro Histórico, collecting metallic objects along the way.
Walking in public spaces comprises the observation of the surroundings and the act of walking itself. Özlem Günyol & Mustafa Kunt reflect on the interplay of external and internal methods of control by arranging for a private detective to shadow them in New York for a day. As they did not know the exact time of the detective’s observation, their everyday life became overshadowed by a sense of suspicion. Self-observation and observation by others likewise merge in the works of Miae Son. One video work shows the artist practicing the moonwalk, a dance step made famous by Michael Jackson. She came up with the idea of walking forward while standing still by using escalators. After using YouTube tutorials to learn the dance she created a work, which combines drawn instructions with a music box mechanism.
Besides paved paths and signs, the means by which walking is controlled also includes barriers that prevent crossing from public to nonpublic spaces. Pakistani artist Bani Abidi takes a satirical look at these. Her prints, which depict objects based on models found in her hometown Karachi, resemble a specialist catalog of street furniture for the protection and security of buildings and squares.
Prohibitions or refusals can lead to Not Walking, revealing how walking is structured by social norms and highlighting the gender, origin, or physical characteristics of the person walking. Artist Kubra Khademi has lived in Paris since 2015; she focuses on the living conditions of women in Afghanistan. For a performance, captured on film, she walks through a busy area in the center of Kabul wearing custom-made metal armor, drawing attention to the sexual and verbal harassment of women in public spaces. A video installation by Pope.L emphasizes deviance and normality in walking. The artist, whose performances have interrogated racism and inequality in the United States since the 1970s, crawls through Manhattan’s bustling streets in adverse weather conditions while wearing a Superman costume—an action that is either ignored, stared at, or mocked. Notions of care and compassion are explored in Jesse Darling’s sculptures, whose forms recall walking aids and the vulnerability of the human body. Simultaneously active and fatigued, the objects struggle with distinct resistance against their own suffering, which can be clearly perceived in the space.
Walking, as evinced by Minouk Lim’s project “Portable Keeper”, can also be a tool to narrate historical events and keep their memory alive. In performances that explore the impact of the Korean War, the artist employs two-meter-long sculptures. These “Portable Keepers” move with the performer through urban areas and become bearers of memory, recording the history and numerous changes of the places. Milica Tomić connects various sites of successful anti-fascist resistance during World War II in Belgrade. In her video work, she revisits these sites by walking through them, lending them a voice by narrating their stories. The project “Los Angeles River Crossings” by Hans Schabus commemorates the river of the same name, which was canalized in 1938 after a disastrous flood. The artist walked the approximately eighty kilometers of the river, documented more than one hundred bridges, and created a map of the water’s path in which Los Angeles appears as a blank space.
Hiwa K recounts his flight as a child from Iraqi Kurdistan to Rome by retracing part of the route on foot. On the bridge of his nose and forehead, he balanced a pole fitted with bicycle, car, and motorcycle mirrors, symbolizing how his identity has become fragmented into many roles. Tiffany Chung also addresses migration in her multimedia works. Through the cartographic drawings of “Global Refugee Migration Project”, she reflects on the ever-increasing displacement of people by recording migration routes and the number of arrivals, as well as those who have died or gone missing. A video work shows a uniformed human chain moving through an epic landscape, their synchronized walk taking on the appearance of a ritual.
For some artists, walking holds a transformative potential and serves as the subject of artistic reflection. The founder of Walking Art, Hamish Fulton sees artistic walking as an ephemeral work of art in its own right. Fulton’s artistic walks differ from everyday movement by a set of strict self-imposed rules. For almost fifty years, these walks have formed the basis of his “Walk Works,” which comprise a wide variety of media as well as respective texts detailing his walks. On view at the Schirn are a series of works that highlight his socio-critical and environmental commitment.
Jan Hostettler’s works are an expression of the inner transformation that the artist experienced in 2016 during his eight-month journey on foot from Basel to Istanbul. On the 3000-kilometer route, he collected objects that he either archived or, back in his studio, transformed through a lengthy process into lightfast iron oxide pigments for painting canvases.
In other works in the exhibition, walking is an essential element of the artistic production process. Fabian Herkenhoener’s “drag paintings” are created while walking and in an uncontrollable process based around principles of abrasion and superimposition. The artist drags canvases of works behind him with the image surface facing down. Occasionally, he even submerges the canvases in a river. Carole McCourt brings together disparate materials and media that emerge from collected memorabilia, interviews, walks, and experiments with organic elements in and from the environment. Other works in her practice are the result of her working in collaboration with nature by burying drawings, which take on traces of organic materials or decomposition after months of weathering.
The material of Birke Gorm’s artistic practice are objects found and collected while walking, which she places into context with techniques and aesthetics that are often gendered and imbued with specific historical connotations. The work “IOU” consists of several branches into which she has carved faces. These works play with closeness and union, and can be found in different places while walking through the exhibition.