The Trodden Path

Walkers and artists – artistic walkers, walking artists – are bound to be aware of the paths followed by earlier generations, even when a conscious choice is made to avoid established thoroughfares of expression. In England, the historical remains of societies, both in the marks of roads and in the residue of art and crafts, lie so thick on the land that avoidance over-influence requires firm decision-making. A bid for independence is part of what makes it intensely satisfying to set out across a seemingly unmarked terrain, just as it often is, as a viewer of contemporary art, to enter a field of unrecognisable creativity, where something new seems to be happening. The fact that in neither case is this really possible does not lessen the pleasure of pioneer imagination. In a country as old and crowded as England, the tabula rasa is an illusion.

Instead of marching off with iron determination to be different, it is easier actually to make a difference by a softer, less dogmatic approach. The artist Tino Sehgal, who was born in London in 1976, said at Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Manifesto Marathon at the Serpentine Gallery on October 19 2008: ‘I just think the twentieth century was so sure of itself, and I hope that the twenty-first century will be less sure. And part of that is to listen to what other people say and to enter into a dialogue, to not stand up and immediately declare one’s intent.’ In the context of roads and paths, Sehgal’s advice translates into an attention to what is already there, hidden and overgrown, its original purpose obliterated.

There is much to see.

In the long-inhabited countryside of West Somerset, the lanes, deep-cut by the passage of feet, carts, and streams, have followed the same route up onto common land for over two millenia. Often narrow, unsuitable for today’s motorised vehicles, the relationship of these lanes to the land they cross is responsive, retaining an ancient sensibility. Unlike the steely-eyed straightness of the roads built by the Romans, to deliver their soldiers as fast as possible to quell and kill, the benign appearances of today concealing the ugliness of their militaristic origins. In between these two are the old drovers’ roads, wide and generous, along which sheep and cattle were delivered from the heart of the downs to towns and cities, as far as London, the stock cared for along the way by shepherds and herdsmen.

Cerith Wyn Evans, a ceaselessly avant garde artist now in his mid-fifties, understands that interesting stories are revealed by quiet attention, pointing out in an interview of 2003 the benefits of ‘keeping an eye and an ear out for the things that are veiled, masked, or under the surface, but which are accessible in many different ways given the opportunity to reflect on it.’

Jeremy Cooper 2012