Into The Mountain

This review of Into The Mountain, a collaborative artwork staged in the Cairngorms National Park was appeared in the summer issue of Art Monthly:

The ‘tale of my traffic with a mountain’ is how Nan Shepherd describes her slender volume in the foreword to The Living Mountain, 1977, published by Aberdeen University Press three decades after she originally wrote it. Curiously for a book that repeatedly asserts the essential unity of its subject – the Cairngorms in Shepherd’s native Aberdeenshire – The Living Mountain reads like an anatomy of a mountain with short, overlapping chapters addressing in turn its geological features, the elements, all the living things and creatures, including man, who form part of it and shape it. This masterpiece of English prose, and not just nature writing, has informed artist Simone Kenyon’s own response to the same extreme landscape, a pocket of Arctic wilderness whose harsh climate makes it stand apart from the rest of the British Isles.

A collaborative live artwork that involved close to a hundred women, many of whom reside in the area and know it intimately, Into The Mountain takes its title from a passage in the final chapter of the book, reminiscent of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: ‘I have walked out of the body and into the mountain. I am a manifestation of its total life, as is the starry saxifrage or the white-winged ptarmigan.’ And yet there is an inherent humility and a sensuality to Shepherd’s mode of apprehending the mountain to which she returned again and again throughout her long life, as if it were an old friend, that one is tempted to ascribe to her being a woman. The aimless wandering that she advocates, for one thing, makes a change from heroic tales of summit ascent and conquest associated with mountaineering literature.

A labour of love, Into The Mountain was long in the planning; partly owing to landowning rights issues, it took the non-profit Scottish Sculpture Workshop, who commissioned Kenyon to make the work, two years to get permission for it. But the artist’s own engagement with this project goes back even further. Over the course of the last six years, Kenyon, who is a member of the Artist Walking Network, has explored the Cairngorms in the company of local women she had contacted through an open call, inviting them to walk in the mountains with her. She organized various workshops aimed at dance practitioners and school children alike, and went as far as training to become a mountain leader. All this fed into the resulting work, loosely inspired by the methods of Min Tanaka’s ‘body weather’ – a holistic approach to dance that sees the body as embedded in the landscape it occupies and changeable like the weather – which originated in the 1980s in the mountainous setting of Hakushu, near Tokyo.

Spread over four days, the event staged in Glenfeshie on the Spey side of the Cairngorms National Park consisted of three discrete yet complementary strands: guided walks capped at 30 participants, led by a mountain leader as well as a walk ‘facilitator’ for each of the three groups taking respectively a long, a mid-range and a short route up the mountain; a roughly half-hour-long choreographic work for five dancers performed on the slopes of Glenfeshie at an altitude of over 600 metres; and a vocal score composed by Hanna Tuulikki and sung by a 22-member choir. The three almost felt like separate artworks and the interplay between them could have been explored further.

Steady rain having been forecast for the afternoon of the opening day, the inaugural performance was moved forward and the long walk I had registered for drastically curtailed. We never made it onto the plateau and steered clear of the summits, fittingly enough given Shepherd’s wayward mountain ways. Once you got over the disappointment and accepted the prescriptive nature of the exercise (our guide, Heather Morning, is the safety adviser for Mountaineering Scotland), the carefully orchestrated walk punctuated by readings from The Living Mountain was a delight. We were encouraged to do stretches of it in silence so as to pay heed to the mountain in all its manifestations, rather than our companions.

The three walking parties came together around 1.30pm for the start of the performance. Unlike the all-female choir sporting grey woolen hats, who formed a separate group facing a small mound we all sat around, the five dancers were not visible to begin with. Soon, responding to a bird-like call from the choir, they appeared one by one up on the hillside, at first as flecks of gold – the colour of the space blankets beneath which they lay hidden – dotted around the misty, heather-clad slopes. They slowly emerged from the mountain, walked down the hill until they converged and then together in formation, accompanied by the humming and singing that seemed of a piece with the sound of falling rain and the rushing burn flowing past us. The rain intensified as the performance wore on but the dancers, looking snug in knitwear designer Jeni Allison’s fetching Merino wool jumpers, seemed to draw strength from it, as if they had taken root in the mountain.

Into The Mountain by Simone Kenyon; photo:
Felicity Crawshaw / Scottish Sculpture Workshop