Aspex Gallery, The Vulcan, PO1 3BF
Monday 01 October 2018 – Wednesday 31 July 2019
Image: Ania Bas, b-side Festival 2018. Photo: Pete Millson
The annual b-side Festival took place on the Isle of Portland from 8–16 September. Trevor H Smith received a VASW-funded writing bursary and has sent us a postcard from a weekend of walking...
Ever since, in 1967, Richard Long blazed a trail with A Line Made By Walking, in which he walked the same route back and forth across an open expanse of grass until the landscape became imprinted with the trace of his movement, artists have used walking as a way of experiencing and interpreting the world. Self-proclaimed ‘walking artist’ Hamish Fulton has said that walking is an artform in its own right, and one which is impossible to replicate through any other medium. Despite this assertion, he produces billboard-sized infographics that present details of his walks, such as beginning and end dates and locations or the route itself removed from its mapped context, depicted as a meandering line dotted with place names and their elevations. To find out how else a walking artist might bring their work to the public I visited the island of Portland, in Dorset, to attend b-side Festival, which this year centred around the ‘Portland Pathways’ research project, and features a range of artists using walking to either inform or define their practice.
The official guide book for the South West Coast Path suggests taking a day to skirt the island of Portland but even accounting for Chesil Beach, the shingle reef that permanently links it to the mainland, this makes for an easy going thirteen miles on a generally flat course; a half day’s walk for the experienced hiker.
Circumnavigating Portland wasn’t always such an easy stroll, as Ania Bas pointed out in Storms, Rocks and Thrills, the first of three guided walks that she plotted in response to the Portland Pathways research project. The project – coordinated by Bea Moyes, a filmmaker with an interest in historical research and archives – found form in an exhibition of findings at Outpost, the year-round headquarters of b-side, and a publication documenting the history of the island and the many rights of way across its ever-changing contours.
Bas, whose work is rooted in the human connection to place, led a party along Portland’s West Weares, an escarpment-like feature formed by a century of landslides and rockfalls following extensive excavation of the cliff-face during the industrial period. Bas evoked the former coastline as she related titbits from Portland’s social history. We learned of Hiram Otter, a local quarryman and drunkard who, after witnessing a vision on the waves, turned to religion and saw out his years spreading the gospel around the island. Legend has it that he named nearby Hallelujah Bay after daubing biblical inscriptions on the rocks and crying ‘Hallelujah!’ on their completion. An alternative legend has it that a fisherman’s wife walked to the bay and witnessed a dozen quarrymen there bathing in the nude, prompting her own place-naming cry of ‘Hallelujah!’
Bas likes these historical inconsistencies, and her exploration of the incongruous continued as she led us uphill towards Tout Quarry Nature Reserve and Sculpture Park, where she remarked on how much of Portland’s landscape is far removed from its natural state. Many of the pathways that traverse the island are in locations that were once deep beneath its surface, yet to be cut from the solid Portland Stone that Christopher Wren used to rebuild London after its great fire, and whose brilliant white pigment remains fashionable to this day.
This is artist as tour guide and historian, disseminating information. On Storms, Rocks and Thrills we are gently led into stories of times past which bring colour and texture to a landscape now sanitised and tourist-friendly. What we do with these stories is up to us – perhaps it is enough that we stop and listen, and look up to the cliffs or out to sea and ponder for a moment the history of this place and the people that have lived and died here. Bas becomes the originator in the stories that participants in her tours go on to re-tell to people that weren’t there.
From a distance, Alistair Gentry’s version of artist as tour guide was far more conventional. After appearing in 2016 as a tourist information centre, Gentry’s Portland Office for Imaginary History returned to b-side this year as a mobile unit offering three guided tours around Portland’s back streets, main roads, and public parks. Gentry’s Park Ranger-style outfit, dayglow hi-vis jacket, and POIH-branded baseball cap, had several members of the public convinced that he was a local authority to be stopped and asked for directions or advice on the safety of a cliff-walk, or even where might be a good place for Sunday lunch round here. Gentry’s walks and talks highlight the blank canvas of history and remind us that a lot of it is imaginary – from flattened monasteries to governmental coups – and that often all that remains are the stories we tell each other to fill in the gaps. The Portland Office for Imaginary History is all the more comedic for its straight-faced delivery, so much so that even when I knew that Gentry was throwing in the occasional truth (later verified by the Portland Pathways publication), I found myself still chuckling along as though I were at a stand-up gig, primed for laughter.
Collaborative duo Claudia Antonius and Jörg Jozwiak are not walking artists, but their installation Easton Ridge National Park does invite visitors to walk one of its ‘easy walks or challenging hikes’. Together Antonius and Jozwiak form the Institute of Inter-witted Research, a body whose primary concern is ‘the interface between sense, nonsense, deeper meaning, and senselessness.’ For the duration of b-side festival they have declared a 100-yard stretch of former quarry-turned-nature-reserve the Easton Ridge National Park. The piece comes replete with signage, including the ubiquitous roadside brown heritage-site sign, and begs the question where and why does a national park begin and end, and why is the flora and fauna bounded within any more worthy of preservation than those without? Aren’t the plants on one side of an invisible boundary the same as those on the other? Like Alistair Gentry’s walks, the work also asks where art begins and ends. Gentry’s tours, and this park, are artworks hidden in plain sight that constitute the kind of grey area that the Institute of Inter-witter Research lives for. Jozwiak told us with great enthusiasm about how a dog-walking member of the public had stopped in front of this new signage, read that the 100 yards ahead of him had now been designated a national park through which dog-walking was prohibited, and headed off in a different direction.
Other work at b-side that related to walking included And The Crowd Go Wild by Laura Hopes, a spine-tingling sound installation in a disused amphitheatre-cum-football stadium, whose terraces are long overgrown but down whose steps visitors may still walk whilst imagining their childhood dreams coming true as the voices of 5000 fans cheer on their entrance to the arena. Amy Clark’s exhibition of etchings, Traces Left in the Landscape, comprises prints made from etching plates that she dragged behind her as she walked. The resulting prints retain nothing of the locations of their making, and so become traces of all places and all walks. Many of the exhibitions in this year’s b-side Festival are accessible only by walking – Raphael Daden’s What Would You Fight For? is a series of not-quite-neon text-based works found in a network of tunnels at High Angle Battery, a former military site. These works evoke the kind of siege mentality that can befall isolated communities when the outside world appears to be moving on without them.
The exhibitions at b-side Festival are well distributed across the island, with multiple venues in each village and plenty of work in more remote locations. The entire programme is navigable by foot, and more easily than one might anticipate. Approaching both the festival and the island of Portland in this way opens up an experience of the landscape that justifies far more than the South West Coast Path guidebook’s recommended one day circumnavigation. For the most part we are passive observers in our encounter with the landscape, unable to fathom the vastness of its geological rhythms, but these artists allow us to see the world through a new lens. The exhibitions and events that form b-side Festival 2018 are fleeting as walks themselves, a blip on this ‘dismal heap of stone’ to quote local historian Frederick Treves in the preface to the Festival programme. From scraped etchings on handmade paper to a GPS-plotted route along the Easton Ridge National Park, these walks are, as Hamish Fulton would call them, ‘invisible objects in a complex world,’ but that world is all the richer for these artists having brought those objects to life.
– Trevor H Smith, September 2018
Working towards a South West where talented artists thrive, and a resilient and connected visual arts ecology that inspires more engaged and diverse audiences to value and advocate for its work.
Part of the Contemporary Visual Arts Network