Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.

Friday, November 1, 2013


I went for a walk at the Storm King Art Center, an hour north of New York City, in Cornwall-on-Hudson.  It’s a sort of sculpture park, but since it covers five hundred acres of hills and woods they prefer the term sculpture landscape.  There’s work by Caro, Calder, Moore, Hepworth, and many more, mostly big outdoorsy pieces that can stand up to and react with the weather.

I’d been there a couple of times before, once in the summer when it was so hot and humid that even walking from the parking lot to the first sculpture felt like an ordeal.  And I was once there in winter, when it was very cold and gloomy, much easier for walking but the experience was fairly bleak, not that I’m entirely against bleak experiences.  But all in all I suspect autumn, when the leaves are changing color is the best time to go, and that’s when I was there this year.

It’s an interesting question: do people go to Storm King for the walking or for the art?  Well, both obviously, but certainly they could still do the walking if there was no art there, whereas they couldn’t see the art if they didn’t do any walking, so I suppose the walking “wins.”

Even given that it was a cool autumn day, the place is so big that walking from one exhibit to another can still be quite a hike. And sometimes you’re at the top of a hill and you see a sculpture down at the bottom and you think, “Well yes, I wouldn’t mind going down to have a look at that, but then I’d have to climb all the way up this hill again afterwards.”  And so you decide to give that one a miss.  I’m sure that the true art lover has no such Philistine thoughts. (Yeah, right).

And given the park’s great size, and the broad distribution of the sculptures, you’d think it would be easy enough to avoid other people and find your own space.  But not so.  I was standing, admiring Alice Aycock’s Three-Fold Manifestation (that's it above), when I saw two women a couple of hundred yards away who abruptly changed the direction they were walking, and started powering toward me.  I don’t think it was my own magnetic personality, nor the siren call of the art, I think these two women thought, “That piece over there must be good because that guy’s looking at it.”

I started to edge slowly away, although at the same time I thought that a real art should stand his ground.  The woman leading the charge was a plumpish, pleasant-enough looking middle aged woman, and she was wearing a tie-dye tee-shirt, though frankly she didn’t look like a woman who ordinarily wore tie-dye.  I suspected this was her special day, a chance to let her hair down, and she was wearing it as a special treat.  I started to feel a certain sympathy for the woman.

However when she got within hailing distance, her cell phone went off.  It played “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (really) and she yelled into the phone, “Hey, how ya doin’ Louie?”  I yomped rapidly away.  There was other art to be seen.

There was an exhibition at Storm King of work by Thomas Houseago, an exhibition called “As I Went Out One Morning” – a reference to the Bob Dylan song that I thought nobody liked very much.  I was obviously wrong.  I’ve met young Houseago a few times, he’s a Yorkshireman like myself, though in his case from Leeds (and we folk from Sheffield think they’re a very rum bunch in Leeds).  He’s a loud, cheerful, hairy, argumentative, roaring boy, and he makes the kind of sculpture you might expect; big, rough, muscular, untidy works, many of them figurative though not quite human, looking like half-finished or half-decomposed robots or aliens constructed from junkyard parts.

I like the work a lot and there were two pieces at Storm King I liked especially.  Houseago looks like a man who never simply walks, much less strolls or saunters.  That would be far too gentle, far too undemonstrative.  And it was no great surprise that the two works I liked were, Striding Figure II (Ghost) – that’s it above; and Untitled Striding Figure 1 - that’s it below.

Of course the great thing about any piece of work at Storm King that invokes walking, is that when you look at it you’re pretty much guaranteed also to see some actual people walking as well, sometimes in a rather playful way.  This seems very right, very appropriate, so long as they’re not playing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” on their cell phone.

You weren’t allowed to touch Houseago’s work, understandable enough, but people were finding it very hard to resist.  Some just walked right up and grabbed it.  Attendants told them to stop, but you felt their hearts weren’t really in it.

And here’s an interesting confluence, or perhaps just a funny thing: lately a friend of mine has been in China, posting the occasional snippet of news on Facebook, and it seems the Chinese have a peculiar attitude towards walking or at least towards the English language.  

They have some rather wonderful signs that say “No Striding.”  Of course it would be tempting to ignore the sign and when challenged say, “I wasn’t striding, I was only meandering.”  But my guess is that this distinction might be lost on the Chinese authorities.  Equally, looking at the stick figure on the sign, maybe they actually mean no running.  Semiotics, isn’t a minefield, innit?

1 comment:

  1. You might like a visit to Oleana nearby, if you haven't been. F. Church's orientalist mansion, with a fab view.