Saturday, 29 May 2010

Hamish Fulton's 'Slowalk (for Ai Weiwei)', Turbine Hall, Tate Modern 30 April 2011 - a participant's perspective

Hamish Fulton, 'Slowalk (for Ai Weiwei)', photo copyright Tate, 2011

I didn't think I'd be writing a third review in connection with Ai Weiwei, but events have overtaken me, and more relevantly, him. In response to Ai Weiwei's disappearance and presumed detention by the Chinese authorities, Tate Modern asked artist Hamish Fulton to create a work of art based on the walk (his only medium), to coincide with the last weekend of Ai's installation Sunflower Seeds in the Turbine Hall. Fulton asked members of the public to volunteer to realise the work: I was one of around a hundred who participated.

The point of the walk was to remember Ai and draw attention to his plight; to create a work that would fill the enormous space of the Turbine Hall not already occupied by Ai's installation; and to offer a private experience of a journey to each of the participants. As far as I could tell these were the prime intentions of Fulton, or at least of the Tate: when I asked Fulton afterwards whether we had collectively realised his intentions as he expected, he said that he 'didn't deal in expectations'. Still, I felt that the way the event was structured would inevitably create a certain kind of form within the hall, through time, and also certain range of experiences for the participants.

The directions from Tate asked us to arrive early so that we could meet with Fulton and be briefed. We had been instructed to wear dark clothes, so that the piece would 'look good': to the same end, we were to start the walk precisely at 12 noon - 'not at one minute past twelve or one minute before, but all of us at exactly the same time,' said Fulton, who would be doing the walk with us. We were asked to choose starting points for the walk, so that we were evenly distributed, a line of us at each end of the hall, and a line along each of the two sides, forming a large rectangle of dark-clad humanity, like rows of little sunflower seeds if seen from the balconies above. At noon each of us would begin walking, very slowly, towards the opposite side of the hall, never stopping, never going backwards, arriving at the other side thirty minutes later. Then we were to turn around and reverse our journey, arriving back where we started an hour later. Two more crossings were to take us to two o'clock, whereupon we were all to stop at exactly the same moment. A further complication was that we were somehow to avoid colliding with people moving in the opposite direction, or at right angles to ourselves. Finally, the whole was to be performed in complete silence. No phones (except to use as modern pocket watches to check the time occasionally). No talking, to each other, or to members of the public who might walk among us or ask questions. Just looking ahead, remaining silent, and moving... slowly... slowly...

Although it has taken a paragraph to explain the rules, they seemed pretty simple... except when it came to executing them. Fulton said that we were not trained dancers (oops, he hadn't reckoned on me being there!) and that he really didn't know what would happen. People were trying to get their heads round the not-colliding-with-others idea and I suggested that it was like a giant traffic crossing, but without any signals. 'Exactly,' said Fulton. I had been thinking of something I'd seen on television some years ago - an intersection of two wide streets in Saigon, crammed with hundreds of people on tiny motorbikes passing through each other without anyone stopping, interlacing like a motorised tapestry with clockwork perfection, despite no signals, lights or traffic wardens of any kind. (OK, I have to fess up that my TV memory was of Jeremy Clarkson's World, not the sort of place one would expect a profound moment - but there he was, saying 'There are very few cars here now, but it's changing. Imagine what this scene would look like if every motor scooter was replaced by a Mercedes.') And that memory of people effortlessly passing each other was exactly what we were like during the piece, scattered around like barely moving terra cotta warriors in some sort of hyper-slow rush hour. You could see people coming, but the impending 'crash' was in such slow motion that it was ridiculously easy to take subtle evasive action. A lesson for drivers everywhere...

One of the most important aspects of the piece for the participants, however, was the time-distance structure imposed by Fulton. It would be simple enough to walk very slowly, back and forth four times, but to do each section in exactly half an hour? How fast (or slowly) would you actually have to move? Being of a practical/scientific bent (and a trained dancer) I did something Fulton probably hadn't anticipated - I measured the width of the Turbine Hall in terms of the length of my own feet. Fifty-six lengths, as it happens. Hmm, half an hour is 30 minutes times 60 seconds per minute, or 1800 seconds. Divide that by 56 foot lengths and I had approximately 32 seconds to travel each foot length. I devised a way of counting cycles of thirty-two in four sections: eight slow counts to lift a foot, eight slow counts to place it heel to toe in front of the other foot, eight slow counts to transfer my weight from the back foot to the front foot, and eight slow counts to place the back foot next to the foot now in front. This worked to establish a pace but I had trouble counting how many complete cycles of thirty-two I had done - I would get distracted by avoiding a collision, or watching people watching us, or my own breathing, and always lost count around sixteen. Still, all this counting meant that I was completely focused - on the counting, on my feet, on looking where I was going, and on my breathing (and generally trying not to slouch, fall over, etc.) In a word, all my conscious mind chatter was completely turned off. It was a meditation, which is what I'd hoped it would be, and why I volunteered to participate. It was a very good meditation, for me. For the entire second hour I was lightheaded, probably because I was breathing properly for the first time in days. And I was entirely focused in the present moment. No planning what I was going to do, no reliving some episode from the past week, or last year. No commentary on what I was seeing, no judgment. Just putting one foot in front of the other, counting, and breathing.

Other people had different approaches to the walk. The man opposite me had a very easygoing gentle rock from one foot to the other, each time taking an infinitesimal step forward (about a quarter of an inch), listening the whole time to music on headphones - not a purely silent meditation, but I have done plenty of meditations in my time to music. There was a woman traveling the length of the hall who was making a soft shuffling noise, dragging her sandaled feet over the floor. A woman near me was picking up her feet quite high in a sort of cycling motion. She got ahead of herself during the second crossing and a sort of gentle panic registered in her movements three quarters of the way across, with fifteen minutes to go. She spent the last five minutes of the half hour cycling in place with her face to the wall. Another woman told me she had been carrying on quite happily until she came within sight of Hamish Fulton, whereupon she began to worry that she wasn't 'doing it right', saying, 'It was like having Teacher watching.' Some people walked carrying photos of Ai Weiwei. One person made the crossings in a wheelchair, propelling her wheels in tiny arc segments. One person was even spotted reading a book (really! I thought, lapsing briefly into judgment. But what book? It could have been an appropriate one, by Thich Naht Hahn, for example...) Most people took slow, thoughtful, tiny steps, less than an inch long. The need to go anywhere, to rush, to get somewhere, was removed. It wasn't about the arrival, it was about the journey.

And it was very, very quiet, even when people passed amongst us, avoiding us like speeded up anxious pinballs, or joined us for a while, but without the evenness bestowed by knowing that there was a full half hour allowed to get to the other side, and no stopping, just even motion - it was easy to spot the 'joiners'. And the crowd of spectators was completely silent, even approaching two o'clock when every available space was filled at either end of the hall, on the balconies, or in the breakout areas with a window view overlooking the hall from the higher floors, echoing the rows we formed as we resumed our positions at the side of the hall, except for a handful of the superslow, last of all the Chinese man in the black robe holding a photocopied portrait of Ai before him like an icon. And then the silence shattered at the end as we began, with a blow to a gong that echoed powerfully round the immense volume of the hall, the volume barely filled by the sunflower seeds or us, scattered seeds realigned in rows, my spirit shattered out of wherever it was back into my body as I stood, back to the wall.

Then a very long, still silence, totally unexpected but very contagious. It felt long as time had slowed down on the walk, for me at least, but I reckon it was at least twenty seconds, maybe thirty (it has of course been edited down on the Tate video). And then, spontaneous applause, first from us, and then from the watching public, filling the Turbine Hall with little bursting seeds of sound.

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