Walking Manhattan’s North-South Axis With Saskia de Brauw

We speak to Saskia de Brauw and Vincent van de Wijngaard as their compelling new exhibition, Ghost Don’t Walk in Straight Lines, opens in London

It’s difficult to exist in a place which does not naturally suit one’s own temperament – and New York City was not an immediate fit for artist and model Saskia de Brauw. “It was way too fast for me,” she told AnOther over the phone in December. She began walking as a means of reconciling herself with the insatiable pace of life in that city. “I start to move more slowly when getting in and out of the metro and on the stairs leading up to the street,” she has since written, “I keep walking ever more slowly until I am walking through the streets at a very slow pace. It pleases me and gives me a sense of peace. I look at the faces and bodies of passers-by, the space between them and note the moment our paths cross.” Soon her short excursions had lengthened – and the mission at hand changed. Walking allowed De Brauw to establish a space of her own in the midst of Manhattan’s chaotic socio-geographical sphere – so why not walk the entire length of it?

On Thursday May 21, 2015, she did just that, the undertaking recorded by her partner, artist and photographer Vincent van de Wijngaard – setting out from the island’s northernmost tip and traversing its north-south axis from 225th Street and Broadway all the way to Battery Park. “The route – as much as possible – ignored the New York grid system,” she continues. The walk was completed in one full day.” That excursion took no fewer than 20 hours, but the cross-section of life it presented en route – from New York natives rushing chaotically around in the city, to those drifting aimlessly through it – presented an invaluable microcosm of life there. “I think that, because there are so many things changing in the world right now, it is a record of that time,” Van de Wijngaard adds. “It questions the pace of life. I’m relying on my senses. And the project became a part of our life.”

This week the resulting compelling body of work, comprising both the film created on that single day, and a mass of fragments, from snippets of conversations recorded (literally) in passing, to snapshots of the scenes they witnessed, in the lead up to it, go on display at London’s The Store X, under the title Ghosts Don’t Walk in Straight Lines. The exhibition is accompanied by a book of the same eerie name. The title of the project refers to Doyers Street, which is a part of the route that I have walked,” De Brauw writes. “It is a peculiar street, situated in Chinatown, and has a sharp bend in the middle. It is said that the street was designed after the zigzagging pathways the Chinese built to ward off evil spirits, who were said to travel only in straight lines and were unable to follow twisted paths. Here its meaning relates to the Manhattan grid. The grid determines our way of moving through the city. It forces us to walk in straight lines.”

This reference to the city’s innate geography was reflected also in the gown De Brauw wore for the walk itself. Custom designed by Haider Ackermann, it used leftover pieces of textile to create a patchwork ode to the structure of the city. “The garment reflects the idea of the passing of time," writes De Brauw. “It is the cloth of a traveller who is on her way and bears traces of this long journey.”

As for finding a way to acclimatise to a New York state of mind, did it help? “It was definitely a meditative walk, for my own sake,” she says. “But also, when we walk we cross people’s stories, people’s lives, without being really aware of it. So it was also kind of like a line connecting stories of people.” Surely there can be no more profound means by which to map a city than that.

Ghosts Don’t Walk in Straight Lines runs from March 9 – 11, 2018, at the Store X, London.