Projected diptych video, Edinburgh College of Art, Lauriston Place, for Edinburgh Art Festival 2013, by Katri Walker
I lived in Edinburgh for several years. That festival city, where there always seems to be some celebration of one form of entertainment or another at any one time. But last year I left, pulled to Aberdeen by a curiosity to live somewhere new, and to help my partner explore a new career opportunity. I miss those festivals, but I also miss those hills. I’ve talked about the Pentland Hills before. These hills lie to the southwest of Edinburgh, and are mostly protected as a Regional Park, and rest within the counties of Edinburgh, West Lothian, Midlothian and South Lanarkshire. The spectre of the Pentland hills loom large over the city of Edinburgh. There are a great deal of points within the city where the Pentlands can be glimpsed: a stilled, wild, rural and, perhaps most importantly, remote area. To the city of Edinburgh, these hills are always present, but always at a remove, not quite reachable for most; at least, not without some effort.
I used to often make my way to the hills. While the reality of the hills in their intimacy may not quite invoke the wild, stilled and remoteness that their distant viewing suggests (one hill pass is aptly named Windy Door Nick), the relative openness,
and quietness1 is apparent. In Katri Walker’s piece, she explores and gently reveals the way in which a retreat to the hills can manifest itself in the acting of hill running. As the promotional material puts it, it is about: “the dialogue between body and landscape, interior and exterior, man and machine”. The installation shows two projection screens alongside one another. On the right, a path through hills is tracked; a close up of shrubby branches twitching in the wind; a vista of mountains, with clouds floating through the blue sky above. On the left, the right screen’s loose correlates in the form of various analytic sequences and videos that tends towards the scientific investigation of running: stop animation of a runner (presumably on a treadmill in a lab) and a black and white scan of a beating heart; neurons sparking; a plot of inhale/exhale against a graph-paper background.
The installation took place in the Edinburgh College of Art, in a darkened studio. I sat on floor, staring at the screens, trying to take in the pair of images; wondering what the intention of the work is, and what it stirs within me. The sonic accompaniment too was significant (and wonderful). It featured music by Judith Weir, which flowed between deep, plaintive bowed strings, to a light, fluttering thrill on violin. In addition, there was the sounds of breathing, and of heart beating, weaving in and out of the music. The slow deep music, racing breath, and on the right hand screen, a view of the hill path, being tracked uphill: the sonic expression of the gruel of a climb. But as the descent begins, so the music changes: this is when it gets lighter, and sprightly, as the run goes down hill; buoyed by gravity: a dance with the landscape.
After my third or fourth viewing, the music cuts out. “It does this occasionally, and always at this point!” says the host at the door, by way of explanation. I assume this is a coincidence, though part of me wonders if this is a treat afforded to those who sit through more than a couple of viewings: a chance to have external noise fall away; a chance for my thoughts to come through more strongly. Up until this point, I have been viewing the film from a distance, as an object. Sure, I was trying to imagine my time in the Pentland Hills, and the physical exertion that entails, but all I was doing was calling upon my memories. But when the audio stopped, I suddenly become hyper-aware of myself. I was tired from travelling, and I realised I was shaking to the rhythm of my heart beat. The visual was still present, and my gentle rocking seemed to be a personal expression of the run. It was as though I had transcended that void between viewer and art; as though I had become part of the piece. Not as though I was running, more like my body shaking as the memory of rural exertion was bubbling up through my being (or at least, my-being-there).
Perhaps that’s what it’s really like? When we’re totally consumed by that moment, that experience, that immersion. After leaving the exhibition, I wandered down the corridor, lost in thought. Facing one wall, was a glass-topped display case. The glass top was angled towards the wall: this cabinet had been rotated through 180 degrees, to minimise its prescence; to show that it was not for viewing: that it was mere clutter; had not been removed in time for Edinburgh Art Festival. The case was almost empty. A white card held taxonomic tags, but most of the specimens that corresponded were not to be found. All that was left were a couple of dried branches, looking like heather or some other woody, scraggy shrub. This case wasn’t meant for viewing, but following my intense focus on Katri Walker’s installation, I was drawn in. That naming and taming of nature, subverted by carelessness; gravity pulling the plant away from its ‘label’: an unintended act against subjugation.
Later, I thought back to the Pentland Hills, to my time in Edinburgh, to the festivals. I was struck by how familiar that place was, despite all that had changed since leaving 11 months earlier. That city and its hills had fed into me, become entwined in my being. I had dragged my physical body away to Aberdeen, but I was threaded into this place, and it into me. As Andrew Grieg says:
There are some hills and people
we cannot return to,
because nothing would be the same,
because we never left them.2
1 Quietness is deliberate, though not perfect. The hills are rarely completely quiet; conversley it’s not impossible to find peace within the city limits. It’s the contrast I’m trying to emphasise here.
2 Excerpt from Knoydart Revisited, in Greig, A, 2011, Getting Higher, Edinburgh: Polygon, p201