A circle made by walking
To walk is an imprint and an excavation. With each step we take, we impress ourselves into the earth, the concrete, the pliant grass. We make a small impression in the shape of our foot, in the depth of our particular weight. The pressure urging along the preservation of small treasures or secrets buried just under the surface. A small ghost of us laid to rest. And then, the lifting, bringing with it the hard-worn dirt, a thorn, leaves clinging to the underfoot for scattering. Or, at a different pace, flinging back a spray of gravel, sand, or shallow water. An erosion and an unearthing, excavating the layers below.
In A circle made by walking, Khadija Tarver walks a circular path on a patch of grass covering the entirety of the floor of METHOD gallery in Seattle. Visitors to the gallery are invited to walk on the grass at any time for any duration. They may also accompany Tarver during two specific performances in which she walks continuously for 2.41 hours. These performances are preparation for a durational piece where the artist will spread her father’s ashes along the 24.1-mile walk from one end of the island of Bermuda (her paternal homeland) to the other. Witnesses come, observe, walk with her, bring her food, chat, or move in silence alongside her. She will walk this path until a circle is worn into the grass beneath her feet, what urban planners might call a desire line—paths of erosion caused by foot traffic, often cutting the shortest distance or a more convenient path between two points. But, Tarver’s desire line leads her nowhere. Or, rather, it reorients the expected directionality, the conventional purpose, of walking. Her cyclical travel moving her not forward or to an endpoint, but down, into the ground. What is the directionality of the desire we call grief?
I visit the gallery on a quiet Sunday during one of Tarver’s specified performance times. I decide to walk with her and to walk barefoot. I want the feeling of the cool, ticklish grass underfoot. I want to feel my own grief in every blade. But when I step onto the turf, I am met with a crusty, collective crunch. It’s plastic. Or something like it. Fake turf that collapses underfoot in whole chunks. And then bounces right back. I immediately ask what happened.
“Fungus,” she replies. “Like spiderwebs covering the whole surface of the live grass. This was the only possible solution on short notice.”
Later I learn that it was most likely dollar spot fungus. This condition occurs when the lawn is under stress from overwatering, poor aeration, and warm days with cool nights. All are factors in attempting to maintain Tarver’s grass in the gallery whose cool concrete floor sits below ground level. Web-like mycelium are the part of the fungus through which nutrients are absorbed and will eventually decompose the grass. Mycelium is a “mass noun,” a word that is both singular and plural. They eventually produce silver dollar-sized brown circles that grow with time in the grass.
We continue and Tarver tells me she will walk the circle in a public park, where indeed she sculpts a circle into that grass. In the original artist statement, Tarver acknowledges that trying to keep the grass alive in these indoor conditions forces a consideration of what it means to “not ‘naturally’ belong somewhere.” In a 22-foot text on the wall, the artist has printed her first name—Khadija—often misspelled and mispronounced, to mark the space as Black and feminine. Who gets to grieve publicly and how? Who and what are deemed worthy of grieving?
Tarver releases a new artist statement to address the shift in installation materials. This new statement focuses on mourning over grief. Mourning, for Tarver, suggests a public or formalized display to mark loss, whereas grief is internal, personal, durational. Perhaps the dead grass is a metaphor: the contemporary, white cube gallery space cannot sustain Black, femme grief. The artificial grass deflects our touch. We remain on the surface. No circle is made. Maybe on a much longer time scale the green of the plastic fronds would wear away and even the plastic molecules would break down to reveal our cyclical rumination. But who has the time?
Instead, Tarver and her visitors’ mourning only becomes visible with the active body itself. A circle made by walking in the present tense. Black femme grief articulated not by impressing itself onto its surroundings, but by repeatedly coming together in a shared doing. Together and alone. Witnessed and not. Walking returned to the body through its relational impact not in spite of it.