Hamish Fulton (British, born 1946) is one of my favorite artists, all the more remarkable since I have never seen his work in person. Nor, for that matter, has anybody else. That’s because Fulton is a “Walking artist,” whose primary artworks are solitary walks he undertakes in (often) remote places all over the world. The work he exhibits and sells in galleries and museums, books and essays, are the abstracted photographic, diagrammatic and concrete poetry descriptions of his walks, which he is the first to admit are no subsitute for the initial experience, his true artwork.
Nevertheless, I am equally fascinated by Fulton’s “indoor” artworks, though these too I have never seen in person. Here is a description of a 2002 Fulton exhibition at the Tate Modern in London, from a Guardian review by Jonathan Jones (The road to Utopia):
Walking Journey is an arresting, tantalising show. In an act of foolhardy generosity, Tate Britain has given over a vast exhibition space to an artist who has nothing to show except some framed photographs with reticent texts, cases of cards and artist’s books and wall paintings using commonplace words against unexceptional colours. And just in case you start savouring the classic beauty of his photographs of Himalayan boulders and American riverbeds, or appreciating the graphic ingenuity of his wall paintings, be advised that none of this is the core of his art, which is the walking – what you see is evidence that his art happened, that he walked from point A to point B.
What makes the repetitiveness, dryness, silence of this exhibition so triumphant is not some chic pleasure in nothingness but something more difficult to accept and impossible to let go. Fulton’s art is a goad. Its purpose, seen in a gallery in one of the densest cities on earth, is to make you realise that this is not where it’s at. There are other places. There is another pulse – that of the wilderness, that of nature. There are, still, ways of inhabiting the earth that make you feel small, transient, mortal. And this recognition is political.
Foolhardy generosity, yes, very well said Mr. Jones. And what a wonderful contradiction Fulton’s work embodies: the actual work is all about the “here and now,” while the documentation of that work points to something else–something very much not “here and now” as you stand contemplating the work in a museum–as being the truly authentic work. Many artists dally with contradiction and paradox, but I can’t think of any others who have made it the core of their work. The one who comes closest, in my mind, is the artist On Kawara, whose daily “date paintings” and “I got up” postcards perform a similar magic of alluding to something that is not there, that has been experienced by the artist alone and can only be transmitted by facsimile to the viewer, distant in time and space, never here, never now.
The fact of another place
Fulton’s museum and gallery works are all about his walks, and can only begin after a walk has been completed. The artist has stated, “If I do not walk, I cannot make a work of art,” summed-up with this simple statement of intent: “no walk, no work.” There is great joy in Fulton’s unwavering insistence that the abstractions must always be grounded in the true, authentic experience that begets them. Later in his Guardian review, Jones writes:
His photograph-and-text pieces are the ultimate holiday postcard. Just as a postcard from someone else’s exotic holiday can only ever make the recipient envious, Fulton’s photographs tease and frustrate. A road vanishing in the desert, a boulder encountered in the mountains, a milestone. A track through leafy England has the pastoral seductiveness of Constable’s east Sussex dirt track in his 1826 painting The Cornfield. Yet where Constable’s painting, which hangs in the National Gallery, brings the country into Trafalgar Square, giving you a nostril full of cow dung, Fulton insists that his picture is no more than an inadequate souvenir of the walk to which it alludes. Underneath the photograph is one of the laconic texts that point to his experiences: “A nine and a half day coast to coast walk from Norfolk to Dorset travelling on country lanes and paths. The Peddars Way – The Icknield Way – The Ridgeway. England July 1997.”
That’s all we get: a document banal in its lack of emphasis, were it not for the grave, quiet loveliness of tone. All the things he must have seen and heard in a walk across England from coast to coast are for us to imagine. We are in the position of Coleridge in his poem This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison, when he imagines the delights of a party of friends who have gone for a walk he cannot join because of an injury: “Well, they are gone, and here I must remain/This lime-tree bower my prison! I have lost/Beauties and feelings, such as would have been/Most sweet remembrance…”
Like Coleridge, we didn’t have that experience, see those beauties, hear that bird sing on the Ridge way that morning, after the rain; and our prison is not even a lime-tree bower but a museum.
What a beautiful description, of a quietly beautiful description, of the original artwork. Twice removed, we are fully in the realm of poetry, moodiness, daydream, nostalgia, desire, and a half-mad aestheticized longing for an unknown adventure. To say Fulton’s work is “quiet” is a gross understatement–like Cage, his is operating in the silences between the clang and banter of the modern world. His is the margin world, the in-between world, the world of direct experience, feeling, earth, moss, ghosts. An increasingly alien world to our non-stop Internetted, virtualized senses.
In this world of poetic feeling, it makes absolute sense that the way Fulton documents his walks has shifted from the straightforward photographic documentation of his early career to the more recent, abstracted wall-painted text pieces. Again, Jonathan Jones:
The fact of another place is all Fulton wants to tell us about – not show, but tell; not give, but promise, in that we can go his way, follow his road. Text paintings tell us this with superb economy, big letters arranged in visual analogy to what he saw. Strangely these works, without even photographs to help us picture the scene, are the closest to the pleasures of traditional landscape art. The layering of the word “clouds” over “stones”, for example, says enough about a walk in Wyoming to make you picture a desolate glory.
The fact, indeed the promise, of elsewhere. The poetry of existence and elegy reduced to its most economical essense. Fulton doesn’t want to spend too much time aestheticizing his documentation, though of course he has done so, in his spare way. But he does so always with the aim of pointing, in a variety of interesting and even beautiful ways, back to the thing that excites him most.
Trapped fiercely in the present
I thought about Hamish Fulton while reading a New Yorker profile of the British (and fellow hiker) novelist Ian McEwan, The Background Hum: Ian McEwan’s art of unease:
We ascended the crop field; behind us, solar panels on the roof of McEwan’s cottage glistened in the sun. Entering a fern-carpeted wood, McEwan joked that he places his friends along a divide: those who enjoy hiking (Barnes, Michael Frayn) and those who consider it a fatuous premodern practice (Amis, Christopher Hitchens). McEwan relishes the mental restoration that comes from being in nature. “The sensual pleasure of it traps you fiercely in the present,” he said. “It has knock-on effects when you go back to work.”
Much of McEwan’s best writing can be tied directly to a long walk….
The sensual pleasure of it traps you fiercely in the present,” is a beautiful description of what Fulton must be experiencing on his solitary walks. It is the in-the-moment feeling I myself have when hiking, and even more so when skiing. I don’t ski very well, or very often, but what I love about it is the focus of concentration that this sport demands of me: if I don’t give what I am doing 100% of my attention, I could be horribly injured or killed. Really good skiers and snowboarders may be able to do it blindfolded, but for me, a barely passable intermediate slope tumbler, exhilaration and terror are bound at the wrists and poised at the edge of a cornice, awaiting my push.
Though I have never been a soldier, I think this feeling must have something in common with the oft-mentioned notion that many soldiers fighting in wars feel most alive when their lives are most threatened. I don’t think it’s a case of being more or less “alive” at any given moment, only that certain situations provide us with a moment of focus and clarity where we are really paying attention to our immediate moment-by-moment reality to a much greater degree than we normally do in our daily lives. This is certainly what Zen Buddhism and mediation point toward, but for me I find it easier and more natural to achieve this state while flying down a steep snowy mountain nearly out of control, than sitting cross-legged on a mat “trying” to “not try” to think of anything beyond the moment. While skiing, I don’t have to “try” to think of nothing but the task at hand; such extraneous thoughts are simply gone from my mind for those blissful moments that I am “trapped fiercely in the present.” Being forced by circumstance to fully confront the moment is powerful, and can be enlightening.
Hamish Fulton has found a way to make a career out of exploration, contemplation, and open-minded living in the moment. He goes alone to other worlds and sends back postcards and signs, diagrams and descriptions, of experiences we can never hope to have unless we leave the gallery and go out into the wild world. His work is a gift to the human imagination.