“The world was at our feet, and the Matterhorn was conquered.” So wrote Edward Whymper of the 1865 first ascent of the Matterhorn, broadly considered a formative moment in modern European alpinism. Now, many contemporary climbers contend that they have moved past notions of ascent that assert man’s dominion over nature. We recognize that narratives of conquest do not leave space for respect for the land. But if we reject the colonial script of ascents such as Whymper’s, we must ask ourselves how to describe the aesthetic experience of climbing beyond this inherited legacy.
Richard T. Walker’s the fallibility of intent #1 (2015) traces an answer to that question. The first in a series of five, it is a modified archival pigment print of the Matterhorn–an original from Edward Whymper’s Scrambles Amongst the Alps (1871). Walker has excised its peak and reattached it, upside down, to the valley floor. A rough red circle floats in the spot where the apex had been.
By displacing the peak and obscuring its original location, Walker casts unease on traditional aspirations. The red circle calls attention to where the eye is naturally drawn–the summit–but subverts the viewer’s expectations. Whymper’s actual representation of the peak is dislocated and inverted, identifiable only for its strangeness. Walker refuses, thus, to make the summit accessible to a gaze intent on conquest.
In the end, Walker suggests that the “true” peak is unknowable. It is through this recognition of the limits of comprehension and possession that we reject the role of ascents in colonial mythmaking. The summit, replaced by Walker’s red circle, becomes a space for mystery, self-discovery and resistance.