In Spain the expression no hay camino / se hace camino al andar (there is no road / the road is made by walking) is immediately recognisable from a poem by Antonio Machado (‘Proverbios y cantares XXIX’, Proverbs and Songs, 1912), learnt by schoolchildren as an expression of the values of self-determinacy: your life is what you make of it. It was also the title, rendered in English so as to de-familiarize it to Spanish audiences, for a show of 12 artists working in the moving image that investigated another indefatigable cliché: Romanticism, with its paths of self-realization and movements toward the absolute. Landscape, the contemplative subject and the earnestness of Romanticism have recently been prevalent themes in art, as well as being newly underlined in readings of Conceptual art. ‘There is no road (The road is made by walking)’ treated this tendency critically and tried, more importantly, to examine why exactly Romanticism continues to exercise a hold.
Curated by Steven Bode, the works on show flooded the spacious LABoral galleries with different representations of landscape and man’s movement through it. The Spanish artist Roberto Lorenzo retraced a route laid out over the surrounding hills of Asturias by a well-known mountain climber, trading the idea of the pioneering journey for a shadowing path La ruta (The Path, 2008). Simon Faithfull, for the video 0°00 Navigation (2008), followed the line of the Greenwich meridian southwards on foot for two weeks, clambering through kitchens and crossing people’s gardens, while Simon Pope climbed a mountain in Asturias with a local shepherd, representing this adventure through an audio soundtrack of a discussion of the route after it’d been taken, between himself, the shepherd and a translator (Negotiating Picu Cuturruñau, 2008).
This progressive puncturing of the mountain sublime was echoed by other works looking at the how landscape is affected by cultural representation. Erika Tan exhibited various depictions of Mount Fuji, from manga cartoons to Hokusai pastiches, editing them into one ever-replenishing loop of Fuji iterations and inviting visitors to contribute their own images of the iconic Japanese mountain (The Syntactical Impossibility of Approaching with a Pure Heart, 2008). In ahead (2008) A.K. Dolven showed an eight-metre-high projection of a group moving a man up a mountain, like a kind of human conveyor belt. The screen leaned against the wall such that it mimicked the rock face, an identification of content with medium that seemed to endorse spectacle without reserve. A postscript in the form of a television monitor, however, picked this spectacle apart: it showed the footage re-edited into a rapid video montage, as if for CNN, concentrating on the faces and action rather than the vast mountainside.
The show culminated, in a muted flourish, with Ibon Aranberri’s Exercises on the North Side (2007/08 – it was shown in a different form at documenta 12 in 2007), an installation of found mountain-climbing photographs and a film of the artist’s own climbing exploits. The work derives from his research into the narrative structure of mountaineering stories, an early and popular film genre that persists today in much the same form as it did in the amateur films of the 1920s and ’30s.
Bode explained to me that to dispel the Romantic experience one must first conjure it and then unpack or complicate it. Such a choice of words (‘dispel’, ‘conjure’) underlines this perception of the Romantic being somehow magical, a state arising out of nothing, as, for example, in Bas Jan Ader’s I’m Too Sad to Tell You (1970), a postcard of Ader (a key figure in recent Romantic interpretations of Conceptualism) in tears, which isolates, represents and refuses reasoning for Ader’s both visible and stated condition of sadness. The connection perhaps explains best why Romanticism appears time and again: it provides a way, even after Modernism, into the miraculous. While staging this pattern of conjuring (works that romanticize the landscape) and dispelling (those that deconstruct images of the landscape), ‘There is No Road…’ also effected, perhaps despite itself, a separate critique of Romanticism: one of simply eroding and effacing its charm through repetition. All mountains, all paths, are superficially similar – a convention that Aranberri’s work aimed to examine. Ergin Çavus¸og˘lu’s lush, painterly video Fog Walking (2007), meanwhile, best encapsulated the frustration involved in this monotony. It was made when Çavus¸og˘lu was in Biarritz during ten straight days of fog, and is set to The Firebird (1910) by Igor Stravinsky, who worked in the area between 1922 and 1924. The symphony crescendos with the image of a sunrise, which is set in the first third of the film, thus creating a peak that ultimately signifies nothing: a morning but with no change in the foggy landscape or the rhythm of the editing. The video addressed Romanticism by running it into the ground – letting it tire itself out on its own loop of rehearsal, steadily losing climactic and symbolic potential in an ever-growing build-up of constraint and claustrophobia.