The Peripatetic School, The Drawing Room, London
Curated by Tanya Barson
The relationship between exploration and inquiry, or more simply between walking and reflection, is one we can all appreciate (a common claim being that our best thinking is done on the move). It has a long pedigree, going back to the school of philosophy founded by Aristotle in ancient Greece, which was rooted in the practice of empirical observation and knowledge drawn from experience. The term ‘Peripatetic’ is derived from the ancient Greek term for ‘of walking’ or ‘given to walking about’, it is used to mean itinerant, wandering, meandering, or walking. While the school is said to have been named after the peripatoi (colonnades) of the Lyceum (chosen as a meeting place since – as a non-citizen of Athens – Aristotle could not own property), it is also claimed that it was because of Aristotle’s habit of walking while lecturing. Thus, peripatetic is also used to describe itinerant teachers.
In pre-Columbian South America, the Inca road system, or Qhapaq Ñan, was the most extensive and highly advanced for its time; 10,000 miles of exceptional, all-weather construction that acted as a system of communication, a source of stability, a sign of Imperial authority and a method of delineating internal boundaries. “The roads were not only used to separate people but ‘for thinking, by helping to conceive of the relationship of one to another’.” However, as the Incas did not use the wheel for transportation, and did not have horses, the trails were used almost exclusively by people walking.
Of course, the history of Latin America is littered with exemplars of the epic voyages of conquest, exploration and rites of passage. From the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro who defeated the Incan empire and began the brutal suppression of indigenous culture, to the German explorer and scientist Friedrich von Humboldt who travelled in Central and South America between 1799 and 1804 and who wrote extensively on its natural history and geography. Similarly, the motorcycle journey taken by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara in the early 1950s, that began as a coming of age, but became the road to revolutionary politics. In literature and art, there are equally important examples; the writing of Jorge Luis Borges whose partly surreal, partly existential literature takes as its central inspiration and subject the city of Buenos Aires, or the work of pioneering video artist Juan Downey, whose Video Trans-America project set out to document the continent – both North and South - during the early 1970s.
This group of artists from across Latin America share an engagement with the landscape, whether urban or rural. More specifically, they are concerned with travelling or moving through the landscape, and frequently with walking, which is combined in their work with diverse approaches to drawing. Images that are the result of itinerancy or nomadism, places, scenes and things observed along the way, abound. They journey out of the studio, into the neighbourhood, the city, the territory or entire continent beyond, in a manner that evokes by turns Surrealist, Borgesian or Situationist metropolitan perambulation, or exploration in wilderness spaces (whether jungle, mountain, desert or pampas). The artist is often seen as a solitary figure, a strolling flaneur or otherwise a lone traveller who ventures further afield (predecessors from Casper David Friedrich and Frederick Church to Richard Long and Francis Alys come to mind). Thus, while these artists share a sense of the subjective experience of landscape, it results in a diverse range of concerns and responses. Through their work they raise questions about ownership and access to territory and its resources, about borders and systems of control, and the political and economic struggles that stem from these. The poverty and contingencies of life within some Latin American communities are also expressed (behind the work are the facts of a continent impacted on by polarised politics, instability and corruption, the failure of utopian Modernist developmentalism, a lack of amenities or access to utilities that are elsewhere taken for granted and where natural disasters such as earthquakes can also cause chaos and devastation). Some express a fascination with the flora, fauna, topography and natural riches, while also testifying to the tensions between nature and culture. Several seem to manifest a sense of ‘topophilia’ and an obsession with maps and cartographies – but often seeking to undermine their rationalist purpose. Others look for the bizarre in the everyday, while also cataloguing aspects of the lived culture of the continent – aspects of life that are overlooked by guidebooks and don’t conform to the picturesque or stereotypical. Their work utilizes models and conventions from geographical, botanical, topographical, political and philosophical or surrealist investigation. The individual bodies of work destabilise assumptions about the continent. They present instead individual testaments to the extraordinary heterogeneity of its people, culture, languages, cities and landscape.
These artists address the actions taken by man in the world, his passage through the landscape and impact upon it. Often, they themselves conduct journeys or undertake residencies as a form of aesthetic nomadism. [As Nicholas Bourriard has argued, nomadism is one of the defining characteristics of a post-post-modernist era or ‘alter-modernity’.] Symptomatic of this itinerant tendency is their frequent recourse to drawing. Drawing has always been the most portable medium, the fundamental exploratory tool to which the artist returns time and again. However, for these artists, drawing has become a focus of expanded practices that engage with the landscape and culture as a subject and source for exploration, as well as philosophical speculation. Not only do they explore the world at large, but simultaneously the parameters of drawing itself, often using unconventional materials or strategies. These artists seek to blur the traditional boundaries between media categorisations; work on paper becomes sculptural object and simple line drawing becomes video animation. Drawing travels off the page and into the environment itself.