Art on the move

Image Credit: Suchithra Natarajan Sathiyamurthy

Killian Conyngham considers the linkage between art and travel, both on a personal level and within popular culture.

I was in a second-hand bookshop in Leiden recently, searching for something to keep me occupied in the downtime across the rest of my trip. Delighted from the onset at the large selection of English books, I wandered around, looking for some title, blurb or cover that struck my fancy. Having gotten used to the excellent English of the Dutch it was not the size of the collection, but its organisation that quickly piqued my interest. The bookshop had, along with the usual sections of fiction, non-fiction and the everpresent crime category, one other huge section: Travel. It struck me as strange, even as a travel buff, that this usually smaller section had been given so much shelf space, and I couldn’t help wondering why this might be.

Perhaps the owner had a particular affinity for travel tales. Maybe books on travel, reflecting their subject matter, just have a tendency to make it further, thereby ending up in such eclectic collections outside of anglophone countries. Perhaps some eccentric travel-literature buff had lived their final days in Leiden, bequeathing this collection to the bookshop before disappearing under unusual circumstances. There were many reasonable explanations I could come up with to account for what I had seen. And yet I couldn’t shake the thought that it might be something more fundamental. The thought that perhaps there was some intrinsic link between travel and creative endeavour. A thought made all the stronger by the slow awakening, over the course of that very trip, of many of my artistic pursuits which the Coronavirus had lain dormant.

Of course, I am hardly the first to consider this connection. Travel has long inspired words, songs, paintings and countless other artistic expressions. And it is easy to see why. Travel can be a phenomenal opportunity to push ourselves into the unfamiliar, both physically and psychologically, as the different cultures and realities we encounter give us the space to consider the peculiarities of our own background. Indeed, there is rarely a more conducive atmosphere for such pondering than being surrounded by the unique idiosyncrasies and differences of a truly unfamiliar place. As every encounter with some tiny thing done completely differently, which you had always taken for granted back home, can spark a torrent of awareness, interrogation and realisation.

Travel can be a phenomenal opportunity to push ourselves into the unfamiliar, both physically and psychologically

This reflection, to me at least, is a completely vital first step in the artistic process. I find travel has the ability to almost squeeze the artistic out of people, their medium of choice acting as a necessary bucket to catch the overwhelming overflow of thoughts, emotions and insights that finding oneself in a truly alien environment can produce. I can’t count the number of conversations I have had with those who travel, find journaling, sketching, filming or trying their hand at photography. Of course, the tendency for overindulgent posting of such snippets of travel can certainly stray across the fine line from self-motivated expression to hyper audience-aware bragging (something I am sure I have been guilty of many a time myself). But it nonetheless usually brings me joy, to hear people recall, through words, designs, sounds or any other form, the details of a journey that so inspired them.

There are some practical advantages to art on the road too, most notably time. In a world where there can always seem to be something that needs doing, travel can offer a rare respite. Indeed, seldom else are we quite as truly free in the decision of how to spend the day, to find ourselves waking up, asking ourselves what we truly want to do today and setting off to do exactly that. This mindset, I find, opens up time for the artistic endeavours that can otherwise so easily be put off indefinitely, as supposedly more pressing matters take precedence. This is especially the case with solo travel, which has so often given me the opportunity to just sit, think, read and ultimately write, as any notion of wasting time is washed away by the novelty of my surroundings.

It’s not just in the creation of art that travel leaves its mark either. Outside of love and death, few topics seem to be as prevalent across popular media. Indeed, at the heart of the archetypal “Hero’s Journey”, is the venturing forth into lands unknown. For so many stories the journey beyond the familiar is a key part of growth, of risk, of adventure. The idea of travel has been so thoroughly idealised culturally as to almost be a parody. It seems almost as hard to think of examples of stories which do not involve travel as those which do.

And I can personally very much see why. Rarely does my life, and the things I get to witness and experience feel quite as fantastical as when I am on the move. I have always had a streak of romanticism. A tendency to insert into my everyday life some of the gravitas of the stories, films, songs, poems, paintings and plays that have had an impact on me. To imagine upbeat music in the good times and dramatic music in turbulent ones. To dream up tacky introductions when I meet someone, and think back on nights out in the form of a montage. And travel, to me, is the ultimate conduit and outlet for precisely that because it feels important. I am going somewhere, doing something, learning things. To dramatise and impose a narrative feels only natural. I am, to use the words of Tolkien’s quintessential tale of journey, “going on an adventure”.

None of this is to say that holidaying is in any way necessary for art. Because it is travel as a state of mind, and not as a product that is linked to art so fundamentally for me. I don’t have to be abroad, or on a plane or in a hotel to feel the connection. In fact, I find those indicators of a trip can be satisfied without me being on a journey at all. Because the material is not the point. It’s travel and art as states of being that I really aspire to. In that way, travel may be more of a key than anything. A convenient way to unlock the thought patterns that allow us to look at the world as a place full of wonder and insight: a shortcut to mindfulness. Some practice in seeing novelty and beauty in all there is to be seen. A seemingly small, but ultimately invaluable role.

It’s travel and art as states of being that I really aspire to.

So I suppose if I’m being honest, I completely understand why that bookshop in Leiden had such an extensive travel section. I suppose in some ways it makes more sense to me than anything else. When that very trip came to an end, when I watched the imaginary credits roll, listening to an upbeat and hopeful song as the final metres between myself and home melted away. And for weeks after a relaxed appreciation of the life I am lucky enough to live came naturally.  When all that came to pass I still felt the swell. The overwhelming urge. A desire stronger than any I have had in a very long time to finally sit down and write. To make, to be, and to do art.