I recently embarked upon Robert Wilson’s choreographed walk through the beautiful National Nature Reserve at Holkham, North Norfolk. Aptly named “Walking” the event was an interesting, if rather peculiar, take on what a country stroll could be.
Stripped of any modern technology- watches, phones, cameras – participants were asked to follow a designated path through the reserve in a solitary wander. Like a line of ants tracking across the landscape, myself and the other participants plodded, in single file, at a designated pace, through arable field, wetland marsh, pinewood forest, to sand dunes and sea shore.
Dotted along this path were a series of architectural “events” which punctuated your experience of the otherwise natural landscape. Seen as part of the choreographed experiences these events toyed with your senses and preconceptions causing you to think, question, wonder or perhaps even scoff.
The events began with a monolithic plywood cube set in a field. After passing through the totally blacked-out lobby, you emerge- blinking – into the centre of the cube. Lined internally with coppery branches the space was focussed on a big black crater from which emerges a low, menacing rumble…
Without being able to see the bottom of the crater you are asked – politely – to stand on a designated spot around the rumbling crater where you wait… Sacrificial, ceremonial, primordial… You are left to ponder the purpose of this pause or perhaps the point of whole exercise, while the other participants come and go.
Eventually you are asked to move on, beginning your journey into the landscape…
After a time of wandering through the vast landscapes you approach two simple, slender, tall, timber walls. As the path takes you between the timber walls you become aware of the landscape you have lost. With your views restricted you focus instead on the sensation of what is happening around you – your plodding footsteps on the hollow timber floor echo between the walls filling you with the slow rhythm of your walk.
Some time later you approach the event you have been waiting for – the tall sandy cone set among the dunes and used in the advertising as the icon for the event. First sighted from a significant distance you approach slowly through the dunes toward the imposing cone.
Like a pilgrimage the line of participants snake slowly towards the man made intervention in the beautiful natural setting of the dunes. The event, as it turns out, is to pass through the dark innards of the cone – with associated background music – and out across the final dune onto Holkham beach.
The walk ends on the beach looking out to sea. A number of timber platforms set along the shore line which, controlled by pulleys, tilt backwards by 90 degrees. Small shelves at the base of the platforms allow participants to stand on them before being tilted backwards to end in a laying position. This process provides a stunning visual sequence as sea and horizon slowly drop away leaving a view of the vast cloudy sky above. Perhaps more importantly though, it provided a great opportunity to have a lie down at the end of the four hour walk!
Initially most of my thoughts, as I wandered through the fields at the start of the experience were questions… What need was there to control the perfectly natural process of walking through a beautiful piece of English countryside? Why would you choreograph the natural derive afforded by a simple stroll?
As I walked, however, free from the concerns of route, time, speed, destination, or conversation I came to forget such questions and as my mental processes slowed I focussed on the landscape itself. I started noting the rustle of the wind through the reeds and the dragonflies buzzing and dancing through the dunes instead of considering the route to get from A to B by C.
Whilst relaxing and enjoyable, for me, the walk was more about the presentation of landscape for human interpretation. Defining structures and processes through which people can reinterpret this natural setting, allowing space to question relationships and meanings. Where the man made interventions left questions the landscape, when uncluttered with the mental baggage of everyday life, provided answers.
Therefore, my lasting memory of “Walking” will be of its setting, and of the beautiful sequence of habitats from which it is composed.