Mathieu Léger: The Distance Between Us

Posted on September 23rd, 2015

"The Distance Between Us" - photo by Mathieu Léger

“The Distance Between Us” – photo by Mathieu Léger

Mathieu Léger is going for a walk. His work, The Distance Between Us, is a perambulatory tour at both the micro and macro scale. He spends approximately two or three months a year at home, the rest is invested in residencies around the world. Residencies where he walks to an interconnected series of nodes that provide waypoints for continuous travel. In a sense, each residency or festival is yet another node on an even larger map. In my head, I picture a manifold map of his many walks animated like a great sprawling mass of tentacles. He says that, thanks to GPS tracking his every step, he’s been working on just that.

He is careful in how he describes the map, the route, and his action, because these details reveal a world of subtle exchange. A bit of a spaz, I stumble over the way he describes his work. I ask about “The End” of one walk, and he looks at me over his beard, a smile twinkling in his eyes, and tells me that it isn’t an end, but a bouncing off point, an intermediary through which his journey moves. And I realize that I’m thinking in a box. I’m thinking in terms of the festival only, in terms of the performances and actions ahead, and he is trying to bring me somewhere else.

The action begins on the first day of Visualeyez. Mathieu folds a map of the city and pierces it all the way through. Unfurled, he spends the next few days charting the best path between the dozen or so locations that were, until he marked them, relatively anonymous. He does not know what is “there,” and there may very well be no landmark. But now it is a place, it is carved out from the gridded ether of Edmonton’s graph-like cage of numbered streets and avenues — the act of demarcation grants the spot individuality.

Mathieu Léger - photo by Mathieu Léger

Mathieu Léger – photo by Mathieu Léger

The earmarked map becomes a flagship for the festival, decorating a wall of Latitude 53 right near the entrance. Edmonton looks like a fortress from above, ringed by a highway and the proposed zoning for more and more city. Old farms become townhouse rows as the city blossoms. Across the hall, facing the map is another map, folded up like a flower or a cravat and nailed to the wall with a sturdy surveyor’s pin. I’m talking a straight up metal spike as thick as two fingers, with information etched on the top. It rests nestled in the heart of the paper flower, a bud of demarcation and place.

Then, at the appropriate times, Mathieu goes for a walk, winding his way through environment and context until he hits a waypoint. Once there, he stands at the precise location punched through the physical map, takes a panoramic shot with his smartphone, and absorbs the place that was faceless and now has some measure of abstract meaning through the act of marking it. Then he moves on.

Mathieu Léger - photo by Christian Bujold

Mathieu Léger – photo by Christian Bujold

 

Mathieu Léger - photo by Christian Bujold

Mathieu Léger – photo by Christian Bujold

 

Mathieu Léger and Steven Girard - photo by Christian Bujold

Mathieu Léger and Steven Girard – photo by Christian Bujold

Mathieu’s walks are acts of performative solitude. Once he traverses ten or twenty kilometres, arcing from waypoint to waypoint, most observers have abandoned the walk.Often there is no one to witness his performance, except the space. And himself. His body bears witness to the work, sometimes he loses upwards of seven pounds from dehydration. The muscles in his legs have developed in such a way that tenser tendons in his upper thigh constrict his nerves, manifesting in a dull, burning ache. And he looks like a man who can cover distances. He looks like he would be comfortable on a mountaintop or emerging from a cabin by a stream, in his practical outdoor gear. Yet his hands move with a supernal grace, he is a photographer with an eye for the critical point in a performance (you may notice many of his images decorate this blog), and he is no stranger to a discussion of theory, literature, or the bridges between science and art.

Early on in the festival Mathieu mentions a literary wellspring for his perambulatory practice: the Romantic poets and writers, individuals besotted with Nature (with a capital N) in all her hoary glory, individuals who did not look only at the flowing brook but also the frozen body of a fallen bird. They took the so-called “good” with the so-called “bad” and tried to find beauty in both. And their artistic practice, the inspiration for their work and their words, flowed from this relationship with the natural world and the abdication of the modern contrivances of industry and fashion. As such, walking became their trademark, for how else can one truly experience the out of doors?

This connection brings to mind the Peripatetics of Greece, or the Walking Zen masters of eleventh century China, or pilgrims of any time or place — all who seek to discover some combination of internal and external realization, who seek to collapse duality or investigate how porous these boundaries can be, and Mathieu’s performance clicks with this model of merging thought with action like the lid of a well-made box.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mathieu’s walks (in Edmonton at least) often lead him into natural environments and the threshold between urban and not. He walks along the riverpath, through fields, past ravines, over train tracks and highways, and up to the very edge of commercial development.

In one of his most striking examples of a waypoint, at the end of one walking segment, Mathieu describes being at the edge of the known world. He stood on a suburban road at the very verge between undeveloped mudland and sunny, BBQing North American pleasantville. On one side of the road were perfectly manicured houses and lawns. On the other was a slurry of churned up farmland ready to be excavated to establish a residential foundation. And beyond it, nothing.

"The Distance Between Us" - photo by Mathieu Léger

“The Distance Between Us” – photo by Mathieu Léger

In his walks Mathieu regularly absconds to and through such a liminal space, whether it be abstract in terms of the guiding principles of his practice, moving from one point to another on a Cartesian plane, or intersecting the blood and guts of a place by placing his feet upon it, and walking. Between such states, he puts one foot in front of the other. The act is a reminder of the fundamental impermanence to not only the act, but also the physical state of things. From a molecular, atomic, or subatomic level of magnification, a noun is a lie. There is no “thing,” only energy dancing in patterns. We recognize a certain collection of patterns and call it a thing, because it moves in a way that seems regular. But by dislocating the sense of permanence that the representational model provides, something highlighted by both Mathieu’s performance and his ineffable action, one can perhaps achieve a state whereby that impermanence is seen for what it really is. All this. A dance, of energy. This renders all “places” all “waypoints” all “ends” an illusion of sorts, or at the very least a convention that we are free to alter. Just as the map is not the walk itself, nor the menu the food, Mathieu’s exercise reveals the potential liminality of any place.

For nothing is fixed. Even this earth that seems too solid beneath us roams through something so dark and terrible and cold we can only call it space. From such a vantage, be it vagabond or merely in tune with motion, sedentary lifestyles must seem like a delusion. Claiming solidity, seeking a firm foundation, when all is void.

I feel like Mathieu seeks to bring people to this point without saying so, for that may break the spell, words being what they are.

So instead he walks. He goes where the path takes him.

"The Distance Between Us" - photo by Mathieu Léger

“The Distance Between Us” – photo by Mathieu Léger

And yet he is not entirely alone. He is not isolated, for that is not the point. He does not walk to get lost, but to see what can be found. Therefore he does not eschew followers/participants in the journey — they simply do not often complete an entire circuit. Correspondingly, Mathieu does not reject one of the more controversial “connections” of our time: technology. For such a stripped down performance of what could be called a basic human activity, self-motivated locomotion, there is remarkable texture to The Distance Between Us.

It emerges in Mathieu’s photographs, twitter posts, and remembrances. Along the way, he picks out moments and images that emerge from the rough. They do not help me feel like I’m out on the walk with him, far from it. When I did walk to one waypoint, I was not nearly so aesthetically aware of my surroundings. As my personal boundaries of Edmonton ballooned, I could almost feel the pathways of my brain map and remap neurons to account for the transformation of null space into meaning, the ole sense of direction firing like crazy to try and recall a tether back to the gallery and the hotel.

That sense of expansion overwhelmed me, as the city grew in my mind. Then the group crested a hill that led down to the river, and the urban greyscape surrendered to autumn’s incoming siege. And I realize that I’ve been in a bubble my entire time here, and it took Mathieu’s performance to draw me out.