Travelling to South Square Gallery on public transport can present its challenges, but the journey provides a fitting context for High Line, an exhibition inspired by the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Pennine Way Long Distance National Trail. Approaching Thornton, the city slips away and the vibrant green of the Dales dramatically rolls into view. The South Square Centre, an historical site which houses galleries, studios, a sculpture garden, community room, café and shop, is near the birthplace of the Bronte sisters and only a short distance from the semi-mountainous Pennines, otherwise known as the ‘spine’ of England.
All works in the exhibition were created in response to the theme and selected from an open call for proposals. They range in medium, from prints and textiles to light box photography and installation. Some take up the mythological dimensions of walking as their starting point: Edward Hurst’s video ‘Orpheus treads the Pennine Way’ is filmed from the hand-held perspective of a ‘CameraMan’ following a ‘Shaman’, both of whom have been given the instructions: ‘Shaman must not hear the CameraMan, and can never look back’. Another rule states that the CameraMan doesn’t have to follow the Shaman, which results in the two taking separate paths and at times losing each other entirely. This is easily done, as those who have walked the Way will know the correct path is not always clearly marked and runs an impressive 268 miles across some rough and obfuscating terrain.
Other artists experiment with making as a metaphor for walking: Alison Carthy’s three tapestries each reflect a particular landscape; the weaving process a slow, plodding meditation on location and movement. Suspended from the gallery’s rafters, Jennie Crawford’s serpentine strip of Japanese Washi paper is imprinted with transfers and collaged elements, including boot prints, peat and snow-melt washes, and photopolymer scenes of places encountered along the route. These are directly related to the artists’ experience of walking the Pennine Trail and developing relationships to its diverse landscapes. I couldn’t help but think that more delicate pieces would have fared better as wall mounts, their mobile hanging seemingly redundant. Likewise, the single installation work by Emma Hardaker and Anna Malcolm appears flimsy and unsubstantial in a corner of the second gallery.
A standout contribution is Rhianna Mayhews’s lightbox photograph, ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, which captures the moody brilliance of the Pennines on a characteristically overcast day, the rich shades of its grass and heather contrasting with the grey tones of a foreboding sky. The winding path towards a cresting hill evokes both the singularity of a walker’s journey and the universal appeal of a natural geography that has attracted walkers for centuries. Indeed, it was a ‘mass trespass’ by workmen into the forbidden ‘uplands’, and the tireless campaigning of trekker Tom Stephenson that led to the opening of the National Trail in 1965. Mayhew’s horizontally cropped image glows with an eerie presence, an historically cultivated kind of wilderness that seems haunted by countless footsteps.
Melissa Burn’s scale replica of a trig point, ‘Triangulation Station: S9914 SE 09900 32655’, is another bold intervention. A familiar monolithic object once used as a navigation tool is here decontextualized and rendered in a playful sculptural language. Whilst obsolete in terms of mapping, trig points retain a symbolic and historical potency (Burns has posted her work on the trigpointing.uk, a site that keeps a record of trig point constellations across the UK). A structure designed to both stand out and complement the landscape, the sculpture seems crowded in the gallery space, a navigational point that nonetheless warrants a detour from the rambler’s beaten path.
Don’t miss 50 Steps, a mixed art-form performance to accompany the exhibition on the 25th of April. See http://southsquarecentre.co.uk/index.php?/news/50-steps/ for further details.
High Line continues at South Square Gallery, Thornton until 24 May 2015.
Image: Rhianna Mayhews, Jacob’s Ladder, 2015, Image courtesy of the artist.
Lara Eggleton is a writer and art historian currently based in Leeds.