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Sunday 22 April 2018
Review: Sara Baume A Line Made By Walking
This is very good. There is really no plot, but right through I wanted to keep reading. It’s true that I did not read it as a novel but rather as an autobiography recollected – that is, crafted – in tranquillity. There is an enormous amount of skilful, talented crafting here. There is also a lot going on and any summary will be partial: a young woman holed up in her late grandmother’s isolated bungalow going through a nervous breakdown or, at least, a long episode of serious depression which makes isolation less of a challenge than human contact, less of a challenge than human intercourse. There is no sex and that is very striking and when it is alluded to, it appears only in the context of violence or the threat of violence: being followed, being stalked, being attacked. There is some use of alcohol to escape and consistent use of the natural world both as a thing to think the depression and sometimes overcome it. An obvious compare & contrast book to read beside this one would be Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun (reviewed here on 19 September 2016 ).
The author makes use of two devices which are played off against the main narrative. Frankie (the narrator) photographs animals dead in the garden or at the roadside and each of the ten chapters is titled for the dead animal whose photograph appears somewhere in the chapter pages: Robin, Rabbit, Rat, Mouse, Rook, Fox, Frog, Hare, Hedgehog, Badger - the usual cast of roadside fatalities. I have my doubts about this. Modern digital printing allows for small grey and white images to be inserted into text (usually as 600 dpi jpg’s), at no extra cost, rather than separated out onto expensive gloss paper photograph pages. I don’t think these thumbnail snaps work very well, in this book or in others I have looked at, and it may be that Baume’s descriptions would have sufficed – or worked better - without the inevitably disappointing grey-scale photographs themselves. Baume somewhere rightly remarks that making it bigger does not make it art, but in the case of photographs I don’t think you can appreciate them as thumbnails. Miniatures almost certainly do not work as art – that is why museums of miniatures are museums of curiosities rather than museums of art.
Her second device, very impressively deployed, is to find an art work – usually a work of conceptual art – which relates to a theme, a topic she is discussing and to list and thumbnail- describe the work in a separated paragraph which always begins with a formulaic phrase on the pattern of Works About Killing Animals, I test myself: …
Some of these works are well-known like Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1998) or Richard Long’s A Line Made By Walking (1967), but most are more obscure. Though Baume at the end of the book (pages 303- 307) urges us to go to the works ourselves, I suspect she has actually and accidentally already illustrated the weakness of conceptual art: that you don’t have to see it, experience it, to respond to it. You just need a description – you just need the Concept which it was designed to illustrate. Conceptual art is basically illustration of an idea, and that is its weakness and banality as art; its realisation (often elaborate and costly, as well as fugitive) is pretty much irrelevant. We can all debate the Concept all night with only a nod to the work which illustrated it. There is really no need for us to confront the work itself, if indeed it exists to be confronted anywhere. Frankie/Baume effectively says as much herself:
Works about Time, I test myself: Christian Marclay, The Clock, 2010. A 24-hour film, a collage of extracts… Each extract represents a minute of the day .. I have never seen it for real. Right the way through from beginning to end. I don’t imagine many people have. Nevertheless, I love this piece. I love the idea. (p 181)
Actually, you don’t love the piece if you haven’t seen it. And it would almost certainly be a waste of your time to watch it. When back in 1997 London’s Tate Gallery screened Gillian Wearing’s Sixty Minutes it would have caused a log-jam in the gallery if visitors had paused for sixty minutes to watch it. The gallery correctly assumed that everyone would give it at most a few minutes, to get the general idea, and then move on. I only had to sit cross-legged on the floor (no seats provided) for 17 minutes to outlast any other visitor in that period by at least ten minutes. What would we say about a commercial cinema film which could not hold its audience for more than a few minutes at most after which they would all leave because they had got the general idea?
Put differently, Baume could simply have made up the majority of pieces to which she refers, and in a work of fiction, who could object to that? There would have been no loss of idea.