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  • Walking as an Alternative Art
  • Katarina Weslien (bio)

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Mediterranean Sea Walk, Fregene, Italy, February 21, 2017. Lunar eclipse. Photo: Courtesy Alina Gallo. 2017.

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In a remote region of Western Tibet, on the pilgrimage route circling the sacred mountain of Kailash, lies the emerald freshwater Lake of Compassion at an elevation where catching your breath is an urgent action. In 2006, I set out with a small group of pilgrims from Tibet House USA, lead by Tibetan scholar and grand champion of Tibetan culture, Robert Thurman, to circumambulate this mountain, a pilgrimage that Hindus and Buddhists alike believe will erase the sins of a lifetime and bring spiritual freedom. I wanted to recalibrate my senses and attune to the nuance of a slower time while walking on sacred ground.

Writer and environmental activist Rebecca Solnit, in her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, speaks of the pilgrim as someone who unites belief with action, thinking with doing, a harmony achieved when the sacred has material presence and location. The pilgrimage tradition is a form of walking in search of something nameless, obscure, and intangible. It can be a sincere gesture of compassion done for the sake of self or others, human and non-human. It can take years, it can take moments. Each destination requires its own time. In the process of walking, one develops a heightened sense of awareness, a rhythm of walking, a rhythm of breath. In our case, the high altitude of Mt. Kailash amplified both. In the thin air, one slowly reaches the summit of the circumambulation at Drolma La, 18,500 feet. This is not the top of the mountain; that summit is off-limits to humans and considered the realm of the sacred. The Buddhists named this peak “precious jewel of snow,” a gigantic mandala; the pre-Buddhist Bon see the mountain as the central pillar of the world. It is also believed that four of the most sacred rivers of the Indian subcontinent begin in this region. Starting off as a clean and pristine flow they arrive at their destinations thoroughly polluted from human interaction.

Lake of Compassion appears just as you start negotiating the downward trail. This is one of the highest freshwater lakes in the world. As pilgrims do, I collected this water thought to signify clarity, purity, and calmness of mind and heart. Back home in my Maine studio, I studied it microscopically and discovered [End Page 12]

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Pilgrimage walk around Mt. Kailash, Tibet, 2006. Photo: Courtesy the artist.

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Collections from participants in Walking Kailash project, 2018. Photo: Courtesy the artist.

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images resembling a landscape, not unlike the very place where we had traveled. I wondered if these particles contain compassion, whether compassion can be transmitted and if so what affect might these magnified images have on a viewer?

In playing these questions forward, in recent years I invited eighteen visual artists, an anthropologist, and a choreographer to consider walking a line of compassion wherever they lived and worked in the world. I asked them to find a slower viewing of their environment. The invitation was open-ended, to be interpreted and performed in the spirit of attentiveness and care. The invitation itself was a collection kit with instructions to walk near a body of water and to collect water and anything else they found along the way and to send it back to me. The result of these walks is the project Walking Kailash.

Eight of the twenty participants in the project are included in this issue of PAJ. The rest can be viewed online where we stored the information in preparation for a future book project. The site— —holds a collection of images, videos, sound recordings, field research, art objects made in response to the invitation, writings, and the microscopic images of the collected water taken by each participant. Some performed alone, others in partnership and community. They explored remote and at times endangered areas of the environment; some conducted research into forgotten histories that were revealed through...


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