I have on my shelf a book titled The Art of Walking, edited by Edwin Valentine Mitchell, published in 1934. It’s a short anthology, a gift book I suppose, with extracts from Dickens, Hazlitt, Leslie Stephen, Hilaire Belloc and others. And now I’ve been sent a book titled The Art of Walking: A Field Guide, edited by David Evans, published by Black Dog Press, "the first extensive survey of walking in contemporary art.” I love this stuff, but I’m pretty sure that Dickens et al wouldn’t recognize any of it as art. I’m not certain they’d even recognize all of it as walking.
Some of the new book's contents will be familiar enough to anyone interested in modern art, even if not interested in walking per se; works by Richard Long, Francis Alys, Marina Abromovic and Bruce Nauman all put in appearances.
But I suspect very few will be very familiar with all of it. This is encouraging, a sign that the ways of walking are inexhaustible. I was enormously taken with Regina Jose Galindo’s Who Can Erase the Traces, a performance piece created after she learned that former Guatemalan dictator José Efraín Ríos was to stand for president, despite this being against the country’s constitution. She walked barefoot between two government buildings in Guatemala City, the Court of Constitutionality and the National Palace, carrying a basin full of blood. She would step in in from time to time thereby creating a trail of bloody footprints as she went: not a very long walk but a very moving one.
And I had only vaguely heard of Ukrainian-born Oleg Kulik, seen below on hands and knees being walked, like a dog, through the streets of Moscow; a performance which may or may not be some sort of post-communist allegory. Apparently things took an unexpected turn when he started biting people.
Kulik makes an interesting contrast with a series of photographs from the 1970s by Keith Arnatt, portraits of people and their dogs, taken while they were out walking. The images are benign and humane, and they now seem like very telling historical documents of their time. They also raise all sorts of questions about whether people resemble their dogs or dogs resemble their owners.
Right there in the introduction Evans also reveals (and I never knew this though I probably should have) that after 9/11, as America considered all aspects of its national security, it was mooted that analyzing people’s gait as they walked might be as reliable a form of identification as fingerprints, and very possibly it might. The problem was that gait is too easily modified. A change of shoes or a pair of extra tight trousers surely change the way we walk completely. And of course the bad guys would deliberately walk out of character.
I once had a conversation with the actor Frank Harper (that's him below) who said he never thinks he’s really nailed down a character until he’s worked out the way that character walks; which means of course that as an actor he constantly changes the way he walks from one part to another.
The book also has a small but pithy bibliography, containing The Lost Art of Walking, by yours truly.