Academic journal article About Performance

Capturing Absence: Walking Performance and Photography

Academic journal article About Performance

Capturing Absence: Walking Performance and Photography

Article excerpt

History begins at ground level, with footsteps.

Michel de Certeau

Step One

A walk on the beach. Footsteps leave footprints.

By the time the imprint in the sand is revealed, the foot has already loosened itself from the earth below, the walker has already moved on. The remaining trace exists only in absence of the person who has created it. The weight and pressure of the walker's body sunk the foot's outline into the sand and created an impression. While this hollow mould in the ground results from direct contact, it also follows from separation, detachment, and loss. Interpreted thus, each footprint (itself of limited permanence) can be viewed as a metaphor for the temporality of existence. Wind and weather disperse the trace, cause it to disappear, and nothing remains to mark the past presence of the walker. In this manner, each movement yields evanescence and each footstep leaves absence in its wake. Western culture has regarded the transitory nature of movements as problematic, and people have long sought to lend some semblance of permanence to life's ephemeral phenomena. The advent of photography represented a decisive turning point in this quest.

The relationship between 'walking' and 'photography' might at first seem fraught with contradictions. Walking - bound inextricably as it is to the walker's physicality - is a motion that unfolds spatially, temporally and acoustically, while photography produces an inert, two-dimensional image. If we focus instead on the notions of 'trace' and 'absence' - terms central to the present analysis - the motion of'walking' and the visual medium of 'photography' raise an interesting parallel: walking can be conceived of as the archetypal trace-making act. By the same turn, walking is also the archetypal tracking technique: prehistoric man hunted (potential) prey per pedes. If we conceive of photography also as a trace, then the placement of steps and the release of the camera's shutter are analogous. Like the footprint's spatial trace, the camera's mechanism produces a trace on the surface of the photograph. In this manner, both footprint and photograph become traces of a presence legible only in its maker's absence.

Photography's fascination lies in its ability to create an illusion of proximity and immediacy: people and places are brought deceptively close to the viewer. Like film, photography satisfies, at least in part, the demands of a culture characterised by its yearning for presence. But this illusory proximity to life is at the heart of one of the medium's central paradoxes. Photographs depict the past, the disappeared, the absent; they render static the perpetual motion of life. The term 'snapshot' references the medium's relation to temporality: skilled photographers can capture and commit to paper occurrences around them. However, the very existence of pictures of people, places, or things draws attention precisely to their evanescence. While providing us with lasting likenesses, the age of the mechanical reproduction of images also replicates the absence of medially depicted events, subjects, and objects. Snapshots thus capture rather more the absence of a moment than life in that moment.

The following article explores three 'Walking Performances' that generate an aesthetics of absence, first by deploying photography, in Jean Baudrillard's terms, as an "art of disappearing"; and second, by conceiving of walking as a technique of selfeffacement.

1. The British artist Richard Long's Walking Sculptures, created by making and photographing footprints. The photographs depict trace footpaths; the act of walking itself is past, the body in motion vanished from the frame. Richard Long cultivates an iconography of absence.

2. Sophie Calle's project Suite Vénitienne, in which the French artist secretly shadows a person she hardly knows on the streets of Venice. Photographing all the while, she effaces both her subject's and her own traces. …

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