Going Nowhere

An essay by Steven Bode for the book ‘Going Nowhere’, Film & Video Umbrella, 2009

[from the book Going Nowhere – for further essays by Alain de Botton, Robert Macfarlane & Philip Hoare you can purchase the book from FVU]


Simon Faithfull’s coolly inquisitive, quietly intrepid, quixotically itinerant art subscribes to the belief that the journey is always more important than the destination. Travelling hopefully (and, as his name suggests, doggedly, unwaveringly, indefatigably), Faithfull’s projects often take the form of a journey; undertaken in the spirit of discovery, and rendered either as a realtime record or as a more extended travelogue. Traversing the globe from obscure corners of England to the extremes of the Arctic Circle or the South Pole, Faithfull moves, with a parallel freedom and dexterity, between disparate media, skilfully switching from film and video to drawing or text-based commentary, to document, and better illuminate, whatever he encounters along the way.

Restless, roving, rootless, roaming, adopting a persona that oscillates between Everyman explorer and an earnestly eccentric amateur inventor, Faithfull’s forays often have an experimental as much as an experiential basis – marking limits, or monitoring changes, rather than stopping to contemplate the view. Although several of his pieces gravitate towards what can best be described as archetypal frontier or wilderness landscapes, they do so less in the grip of a Romantic wanderlust than from a disarmingly rationalist, endearingly Utopian faith (that word again) in the virtue of empirical enquiry (it can perhaps be argued that it is exactly this clarity and intelligibility of purpose, allied to its infectious sense of adventure, that gives his work its refreshingly widespread appeal). Reports from the field, simultaneously gauging the actual properties of nature and the wider boundaries of possibility, his pieces are fuelled by a vivid and hyperactive imagination but also haunted, like many of the phenomena they are seeking to study, by the spectre of entropy. For all the motion they impart and the activity they exhibit, Faithfull’s works seem at pains to emphasise that the onward march of human progress is not infinite, and may indeed be subject to a law of diminishing returns. Burdened by the knowledge that what goes up must come down, they are equally imbued with a suspicion, or a feeling of foreboding, that, in the long run, all the effort we are expending may not actually lead us anywhere.

This publication showcases four of the artist’s trademark journeys, all of which are characterised by a lingering exposure to the initial bracing shock and the subsequent numbing presence of an experience of nothingness. A voyage by sea to the terra incognita of Antarctica, his video is a captivating evocation of one of the last remaining Nowheres on the planet. Similarly probing the threshold at which life can exist on earth, 30km is a filmic record of the flight of a small weather balloon, whose spectacular climb through the heavens is finally undone by the pressure of altitude and the barren blackness of space. In a slightly different key,the twin-screen projection Aurora Borealis (unseen) recounts a personal pilgrimage to witness the majestic sight of the Northern Lights that results in an abject failure to see anything at all. A salutary reminder that our best laid plans sometimes end up as a big fat nothing, the piece dovetails neatly with his film 0º00 Navigation, an undeviating GPS-directed walk along the degree-zero of the Greenwich meridian in which the distant gleam of the horizon is reduced to a perpetual vanishingpoint.

Little leaps into what remains of the Great Unknown (or towards those marginal, borderline spaces that are all-too-frequently overlooked), Faithfull’s works offer an interesting variant on the now-familiar art-historical category of the sublime, in which their appreciation of the landscape they encounter is not only sharpened by sudden intimations of the void but routinely pervaded with the background hum of a kind of low-level emptiness. Self-consciously displaying many of the impulses and conceits of the ‘heroic’ pioneer (while clearly attuned to the trailblazing artists, and scientists, who have been there before him), it may be that Faithfull’s true forté is as a poet, and prophet, of anticlimax. Acutely aware of his place in the overall scheme of things (yet always wanting to push for more), he infuses his exploits with a keen sense of bathos, as if measuring the extent of his (and our) human fallibility against the various absolutes and abstractions we use to make sense of the world. In its focus on these four key film and video pieces,Going Nowhere highlights the rigour, and the humour, that lend his work its capacity for insight, and its continuing impetus.