Sunday, September 20, 2009

Open spaces

The painting above was finished not last year, but nearly 100 years ago. It's by an Italian artist called Russolo, and it's called The Revolt. Russolo was a Futurist, and the Futurists were fierce, angry artists who wanted to smash the prescriptive, ordered ways of thinking of the past and speed towards a modern future that was more fast, free and easy than the slow, bogged-down past.

During my recent holiday in London, I did a lot of walking. I did some photography, some of it while walking, other bits while sitting down or ambling aimlessly. While sitting down, I was usually also reading or thinking. And whereas earlier this year I was thinking about light and dark and surface and depth as things in themselves and what their properties might be, this time I'm thinking more about movement through dark and light, and movement across surfaces. And what the dark and the the light and the surface contain, and mean.

Moving across the earth, whether you walk down your road, or whether you take a tube-train in London and pop up above the ground again, or whether you fly, has lately become very... directed. We start our journeys from a particular patch of ground given some significance and a name. We move from that point to another point, and to do that, we usually walk along a road, or a path, or we follow a map, or we sit within a form of transport that will impose our route upon us. We are as directed in our movements as actors upon a stage or as plants upon a pergola.

Richard Long is an artist who is interested in those paths and roads and the surface of the earth and how we move across it. He is interested in prising greater freedom of movement from apparently regimented ways of moving. For example, one of his works comprises a higgledy-piggledy series of worm-like lines, moving freely across a white surface - the lines are actually an unmarked map of the paths and roads which 'allow' our movement over a particular area of the English countryside.

Another work, which looks much more limitational, is a straight line drawn across a map from one random point to another. There is no path - the idea is simply to treat the surfaces of the earth along the line - the random sequence of mud - stone - paved road - grass - pebbles - dry leaves - more grass - mud - heathland - outcrop - crag - as free land to be travelled upon and over without paths in mind, without routes to follow. The straight line ruled across the map suddenly opens out in the imagination and becomes the pathless way without rules of any kind. And his gallery installations - the ground on the wall in the form of mud, lines of mud splashes looking as delicate as the shoots of bamboo or reeds on a Japanese print - simply draw further attention to the freedom of the surface.

Which is why, wandering aimlessly around the gallery, I was surprised when a Tate gallery attendant told me I couldn't take a photo of a group of stones. And which is also why, wandering wide-eyed around Tate Modern's Futurism exhibition, I was surprised at how directed a future the free-thinking, museum-smashing, free-thinking, velocity-loving, car-driving Futurists seemed to be speeding so headlong and blindly towards.

It's not that their love of the machine is alien to me. I love aeroplanes and fast trains and slow, clunky underground ones, with their shadows and sounds and flashes of light and colour just as much as they did. But it's all so samey for fierce, free-thinking people, isn't it? And all those people in the painting above, rushing forwards as one, so fast that they seem to be breaking the sound-barrier... couldn't they see the threat to freedom lurking in a mechanised future?

Or was it that nobody could have seen that, and now that we're in the present day with its planes, trains, automobiles and timetables, it takes an artist like Richard Long to nudge us out of the airport, away from the coded motorways and across the open fields?

(And another couple of things. One: there's no way my camera could have captured all that - stop your silly snapshot policies, art galleries. Two: Roni Horn's art, which I blogged about before, suddenly seems more 'Free-Futurist' than ever.)


Jonathan said...

From thinking about light and dark and surfaces to thinking about moving through them... Sounds like good creative progression.

Patrick said...

I think sometimes it's hard to fully appreciate the optimism of earlier ages from our perspective in their future.

I expect the Futurists were too wholeheartedly caught up in the excitement and wonder of the (then) emergent machine age to imagine that it might bring with it new constraints as well as new possibilities.