Of Walking

BY Jason Foumberg, October 23, 2013

Barbara Crane, People of the North Portal, 1970. Collection of the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Gift of Richard S. and Jeanne L. Press

The topic of walking has become a subspecies of contemporary art history, much like mapping or game theory. Thematic group exhibitions about walking have proliferated around the globe in the past decade, as have books and conferences. The Museum of Contemporary Photography’s Of Walking (on view through December 20) may be the first walking-art survey to focus on photography’s major role in the production and documentation of this genre.

The show features an international array of artists spanning over six decades, from 1951 to projects completed this year, and includes some of the usual suspects, such as Jim Campbell and Hamish Fulton (but not Francis Alÿs or Richard Long). Most of the early work in the show—black-and-white street photography by artists such as Barbara Crane and Dawoud Bey—are best understood as precursors to the now-expanded gesture.

Jim Campbell, Fundamental Interval (Commuters), 2010. Courtesy the artist

Given the ubiquity of walking-themed art and walking-themed exhibitions, then, this show’s strength is the presentation of lesser-known international artists. Simryn Gill took 30 walks in 30 days through the streets of a Sydney, Australia, suburb. A day’s walk ended when Gill’s film ran out. The 800 black-and-white shots are all unremarkable, but that is their value. May, 2006, predates Google Street View by two years, but similarly captures the unique banality of a particular place, memorializing incidental seconds of everyday life.

In A Moment of Slowing Down (2003–2013), Dutch artist Paulien Oltheten displays a collection of photo, text, and video work related to a man she saw (and recorded) walking in slow motion on a New York City sidewalk. According to a letter posted on the gallery wall, Oltheten attempted to contact this man and to have him re-perform his slow walk (a speed resembling a Hamish Fulton performance, actually) for the camera, even though she had already recorded him doing his special walk. On walks, the world is readymade art.

Why are we seeing so many walking projects these days? Perhaps the widespread return to realism, and to everyday, local contexts, blossoms in the slowness afforded by walking.