Van Abbe Museum, Eindhoven, Netherlands
Normality is, more or less, a well-managed form of what is usually regarded as its opposite. Thus, sanity aa kind of gentrified madness; madness not simply being an accidental derangement of reason but an essential, original possibility of human existence never fully overcome. Likewise, so-called ‘normal’ sexuality is only a precarious organization of impulses that remain fundamentally perverse. And the same could also be said for walking. What is walking but, as the German psychiatrist Erwin Straus once put it, ‘a continuously arrested falling’, a propulsive act in which one constantly throws oneself off-balance while managing to catch oneself just in time – and a little further ahead – with the other foot?
On the humble subject of the walk there is a notable, albeit not terribly extensive, body of literature. One thinks of Balzac’s Théorie de la Démarche (Theory of Walking, 1833), with its acute physiognomy of the diverse forms of the gait; Robert Walser’s story ‘The Walk’ (1917); the aforementioned Straus’ phenomenological study of upright locomotion (The Upright Posture, 1949); Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), in which he tells the tale of walking from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople in the 1930s; Werner Herzog’s account of walking from Munich to Paris (Of Walking in Ice, 1978); and, not to be forgotten, the hilarious Monty Python sketch about the Ministry of Silly Walks. In the world of art there are quite a few artists for whom walking has been a major concern at some point, including Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, but there is one name that perhaps remains most indissolubly linked with this most basic of comportments: Stanley Brouwn. Indeed, one might argue that Brouwn’s stride merits a place alongside the stripes of Buren, Warhol’s soup cans and Flavin’s fluorescent light fixtures as one of the paradigmatic artistic gestures of the postwar era.
This remarkable retrospective of this peripatetic artist’s career afforded an opportunity not only to reconsider Brouwn’s often overlooked work, with its origins in 1960s Conceptualism, but also to reflect on the legacy of that tradition in an age that seems less concerned with that period’s major preoccupations. Among these could be cited: the dematerialization of the work; the impersonality of creative processes, or the disappearance of the author; and, like the experimental literary group Oulipo, an interest in contingent rules and the permutations of a simple pattern. All of these things also appear in contemporary work, but today the focus seems to be on the personal life and self-exhibition, a desire to be immersed in experience without mediation, and the flaunting of rules, systems and codes.
Brouwn’s habitual obsessions are with geography, distance and direction, scale, measure and dimension. He is a meticulous recorder, giving every indication of keeping his counter and measuring stick close at hand. Between 1960 and 1964 he produced the seminal series ‘This Way Brouwn’, asking passers-by to sketch for him on paper the way from A to B, then appropriating their drawing by adding his stamp ‘This Way Brouwn’. Whether the artist is dealing with his own meanderings, comparing different units of measurement –1 royal cubit: old egyptian measuring unit of length 2500 b.c. (1998) and division of 1m and 1 wari (kenya) according to the golden section (1994) – proposing short walks in the direction of world cities – walk 4m in the direction of havana distance: 7396584.7166m (2005), measured from the very spot where you standing in the museum – or detailing in exact terms what lies behind a square metre section of the museum wall – ‘a 28mm cushion of air separates brick from sand-lime brick’ (1x1m wall exhibition space van abbemuseum eindhoven, 1979-2005) – a cool passion for precision seems to reign.
As a creative strategy it seems oddly akin to that of a neurotic bureaucrat. The first room of the exhibition, with its rows of grey metal filing cabinets stuffed with index cards and its precise records of steps taken in various cities, appears to illustrate perfectly the ‘aesthetic of administration’ commonly associated with Conceptual art. Instead of a Ministry of Silly Walks, we have a kind of Silly Ministry of Walks – a phrase I mean not as flippant insult but as a way of trying to capture the very dry humour that pervades Brouwn’s idiosyncratic archives. And if we accept humour as the flipside of bureaucratic coldness, perhaps ecstasy constitutes the unlikely reverse of Conceptual detachment: there is in his work an invitation to lose oneself in the peculiar ecstasy of measurement, in the same way that the man Brouwn evaporates into the many leagues he has trekked. To paraphrase the artist: ‘I am become a distance….’ And to amble through the Brouwn exhibition is in a sense already to participate in this work, since each room is designated ‘Portrait of a Place, the surface of the floor on which you stand at this moment’, with the relevant dimensions, of course, carefully noted.
I found it particularly fitting that a few floors above the Brouwn exhibition, the alternating male and female voices of On Kawara’s One Million Years (Past & Future) (1970– ongoing), were solemnly counting down a seemingly endless succession of years. In a happy coincidence, between Brouwn and Kawara we are confronted with those two fundaments of the universe: space and time. On this occasion what struck me most was the parallel attempts of the two artists to render these pure conceptions of experience, as philosophers would say,as concrete, handy objects; namely, books. What to make of these supremely anti-literary monuments 10 Kilometres (1975) or ‘One Million Years’ (in its incarnation as a series of books)? No doubt the answer of a friend of mine when asked ‘What is your favourite book?’ would have pleased Brouwn. She replied: ‘The atlas.’