The path less travelled
A scene from A. K. Dolven's Looking Back.
WANDERLUST might be mistaken for a medical condition. It inhabits its hosts quietly, produces symptoms, consumes. Driving them to forgo the comforts and securities of a place called home, it compels those it afflicts to travel lonely paths, tracks and byways. And while it requires energy, most of all it demands a sort of feverish curiosity while afoot.
Unlike an illness, though, it is usually therapeutic, restorative and enjoyable. In her book Wanderlust (2000), Rebecca Solnit writes that children begin to walk in order to ''chase desires no one will fulfil for them: the desire for that which is out of reach''. And as adults, she suggests, we often walk in order to think because ''the random and the unscreened'' help us find things we don't know we are looking for.
Juliana Engberg has a copy of Wanderlust, a general history of walking, on her bookshelves at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, where she is director. It's little surprise Engberg has a daily walk and is a confirmed wanderer, preferring to take the longer route, the unknown path; to soak in sights, unbidden thoughts and unexpected sounds. All this has been much in her mind lately, as she has put together a new exhibition that explores many manifestations of the idea of ''desire lines'' - the physical, psychological and conceptual.
Mel O'Callaghan's 2012 video work Endgame.
The most literal versions of desire lines are also known as goat tracks: paths people take from A to B in defiance of the official route; taking the winding, scrubby track through a park, for example, that scorns the concrete pathway put down by authorities.
''I like this wayward sense that we can still master space in a way that urban designers and architects and urbanists and city councils can't control,'' Engberg says. ''That they aren't going to make us walk there if we can get there by going that way. It is a subtle protest, those maverick paths that we make for ourselves. I like the poetry of that.''
Such poetry emerges much more broadly in Desire Lines in a host of work by international artists such as Bruce Nauman, Joan Jonas, Yvonne Rainer, Richard Long and even Samuel Beckett. There's Robert Smithson's famous Spiral Jetty (1970); Tacita Dean's audio work about a (fictitious) 1997 journey to find that jetty, so iconic in the history of art; A. K. Dolven's film, Looking Back, of a group of Nordic women walking backwards amid the glories of their landscape; or Paulien Oltheten's Walk on a Line (2008), a film about a tightrope walker crossing between two housing towers.
Mircea Cantor's Shortcuts.
''I have always loved the concept that we make these maverick lines for ourselves,'' Engberg says. ''In a way that is a metaphor for the artistic process itself. It likes to go off the beaten track; it likes to go down the byways and behindways, sometimes to bring us back to ourselves, as it were. For me, it is a nice way of describing the process of artistic encounter and creation - you must take yourself off the main place to reach the more creative spot.''
Artist Charlie Sofo became aware of goat tracks while growing up in Canberra, one of the world's most fabricated cities. The layout of the place, doused liberally with bushland and footpaths, has made it a walker's paradise, with enormous tracts of land between built-up areas. On his traverses, Sofo became acutely aware of how pedestrians, joggers and hikers cut their own routes through the carefully planned civic blueprints.
Sofo is certainly an explorer, though his art is not about walking, and the physical act of walking is not always his means to an artistic end. It so happens, though, that in recent years his night-time (usually) wandering around Melbourne's inner-northern suburbs (he does not drive) with a camera, video camera, mobile, or simply his memory, has produced fascinating results that articulate beautifully the joys and the serendipitous nature of wanderlust.
One of his first art works to emerge from this began with his noticing the number of used condoms on the ground. He began to document them on his phone, dropping a virtual pin onto an i-map every time he saw one of these unromantically squishy mementoes of intimacy.
He posted the project and others began to contribute.
More recently, he has become aware of those patches of ground - a dislodged piece of concrete, a wonky manhole cover, creaky floorboards, a warped drainage grille - that one can stand on and rock from side to side. The video he has made of dozens of these things has a percussive, musical effect as the people he has commissioned to perform (we only see their sneakered, thonged, socked or bare feet) clackety-clack on their favourite pieces of urban shaky ground.
''They are sort of like small failures, things that are loose or cracked, markers,'' he says of the surfaces various people (commissioned by word of mouth) brought to his attention. ''One man cycled over one [a grille above a drain] every day, and it clanked.''
Sofo has many other examples of urban discovery that have been turned into art - cat-watching, repeated sensor-light activation, collecting the objects that get stuck on shoe soles, a mapping of sundry tactile surfaces - and several of them are part of Desire Lines.
As Sofo observes, his work is not about walking, but about ''expanded notions of mapping and engagement with the world''. Each work is a collection of either images, objects, sounds or experiences he thinks of as ''fieldworks'', or a different way of framing things. ''It's another way of gathering things,'' Sofo says. ''Everything is rhythmic, somewhat everyday; minor, arbitrary.''
Such desires to disrupt imposed order are investigated in other works in Desire Lines, such as Leopold Kessler's video work of his audacious 2004 project to hook up his apartment with power from his local art school, running electrical cable several kilometres. Or, perhaps, Eva Koch's magical video, NoMad (1998), of people walking (so it seems) on water.
An interesting theme is the treatment of landscape. Engberg reflects that its use as a basis for artwork has changed dramatically in the past century, from a merely pictorial engagement to ''a meandering, a poetry, a line, a word, a navigation''.
''Those things are beautiful,'' she says. ''It helps you realise that it is made up of many parts and that the journey is also a mental one. That is essential to our recuperative character. There is something really nice about meandering, about the qualities of the reverie of walking, to give yourself time to do that. It is incomprehensible to me that people put buds in their ears. It blocks out the songbirds. I like to leave myself open to the ambience of meandering. I think it helps develop the qualities of thinking.''
As she says, our lives are so speedy, it is essential to depart from the highway and ''go down a little path'', to be more aware of the poetry of space. Movement, then, that might give us pause.
■ Desire Lines is at ACCA until March 3. accaonline.org.au