Artist: Hamish Fulton
In This is not Land Art, the viewer is confronted with four, large-format wall texts by British artist Hamish Fulton, each of which references a specific walk or journey the artist has taken. One learns about a multi-day walk to the summit of Denali (2004), an ascent to the summit plateau of Cho Oyu (2000), a walk from the Rhone to the Danube (1994), and a nineteen-day walk along the coast past Mount Fuji (1988). An inverted timeline forms from left to right: the most recent walk is at the beginning; the earliest marks the end of the “reading path.”
Hamish Fulton (born 1946) belongs to a group of British artists who significantly shaped the emergence of Conceptual art in the early 1970s. The focus of his artistic practice is not the final work or individual artistic articulation, i.e. its inscribing into the material or the spatial setting, but the immaterial, the underlying and inherent idea of the work, which is directed at the viewer not only as observer but also linguistically as reader. A significant feature of Fulton’s work is the practice of walking and trekking. Since his student days, he has undertaken multi-day walks across every continent of the world. The experiences of walking and trekking provide a foundation for notations — often captured in only a few words — that he, in text arrangements, drawings, and photo works, condenses into polysemic, yet semiotically precise text-and-image tableaus. Each work is based on and references a specific walk. Fulton is primarily concerned with experience, not with the final image or object. “An object,” says the artist, “cannot compete with an experience.” The media of visual and spatial articulation always form a conceptual sequence, a means of visual communication and in no way an artistic a priori. For Fulton, “walking is the constant, the art medium is the variable,” simply holds true.
Fulton’s actual artistic medium is walking, whether in the form of a multi-day walk or trek. The final artistic articulation cannot be separated from this modality of experience, nor can it be decoupled or reified in the form of a work. Fulton’s aesthetic practice can be described as an aesthetic of action, he focuses on doing, on the experience of and engagement with landscape and nature while walking. The actual movement of this process-reflexive and repetitive artistic action is the awareness of one’s own perception — through nature. Fulton aims at a heightened, augmented perception of nature, a dimension of perception that goes far beyond mere seeing, one akin to an ontological self-questioning.
As Fulton himself emphasizes, his interests lie not in landscape but in land. He refuses to be categorized as a landscape artist, either in the tradition of landscape painting or, even more explicitly, of Land Art. He is not interested in a pictorial, romanticizing viewpoint or in acting on or in the landscape, let alone in realizing oversized manifestations in the landscape. On the contrary, one of his most fundamental premises is not to add anything to the landscape, or to take anything away. This forms an almost ethical underpinning to his activity, since it is about a direct, undistorted, and non-instrumentalizing relationship of man toward nature and toward the world. The specific form of perception associated with walking is both the primary basis and aim of the undertaking. This is the only way to fully comprehend Fulton’s practice of walking through landscapes, over mountains, or along coasts as a unique form of process-based perception, one that cannot be achieved in any other fashion and which is neither compensable nor substitutable. “No walk, no art,” says the artist. The practice of walking, the format of the walk, is already a work in itself. With Fulton, walking is a form of work that, akin to a sculpture, is defined by a boundary. Applied to walking, this means that the process of walking must be limited temporally, defined by a beginning and an end. A completed walk, in Fulton’s view, equals an invisible object, an immaterial sculpture. Walking here is therefore not an action with an open end (similar to strolling), but rather a set act capable of bringing about a special mode of uniform, even “disinterested” seeing. In this special mode, walking forms the basic conditions of artistic perception, which is then later transformed into a suitable, aesthetic-reflective form. Walking is thus anything but a means of appropriation, because this would be instrumentalizing, but is in fact a very means for self-orientation and ontological self-reflection.
For Fulton, walking functions as a kind of phenomenological magnifying glass, as a modality of perception that both frees itself successively from the thinking-evaluating consciousness and is perceptually bundled at the same time. One step follows the next, the program itself is simple, basal, almost archaic. When walking the walker encounters places, people, things, events in sequence, in the form of a stream that seemingly happens by itself, the flow of things in their purest form, so to speak. The walker is more like a seeker than a finder or discoverer, his perception proves to be less directed and yet is by no mean passive. Those who walk open themselves up to a continuum of perception and are potentially more open and less judgmental about what they encounter. “Experience,” Fulton remarks, “is another sphere of interconnected data.” The sought-after, self-limited kind of walking creates a specific form of perceptual freedom. The weakening of control, directionality, and telos enables a more universal form of understanding that takes place “prior to” thinking and classifying, a kind of precognition that ultimately comes closer to being than to episteme and to theorem. Walking is thus capable of bringing about a kind of temporary escape from categorizing. It certainly functions as a counter-strategy to today’s modes of life. Nevertheless, Fulton’s aim is not escapist; his wanderings are not intended to lead one away from the world, but into it, they are intended to direct one’s attention toward the here and now and even lend new epistemological and ontological weight to the actuality of perception.
With respect to the scenario of the exhibition, it is now clear that it is not about travel logs, mapping, or a poetic-documentary impetus, nor about the final formal form of appearance and articulation, i.e. sculpture, image, text, but, in analogy to walking, about experiencing the pictorial, the sculptural, the spatial, and the temporal, ultimately about questions of being. The link between the experience of walking and that of the wall tableaus is not rooted in the formal — i.e. whether visual or spatial analogies or documentary content are recognizable — but in the affinities between the heightened aesthetic perception of the landscape while walking, on the one hand, and in confronting the wall texts on the other.
The individual text-image tableaus in This is not Land Art appear distanced and depersonalized. Fulton always presents nature and landscape neutrally because, according to the artist, nature itself is free from emotion and interpretation. Fulton erases all traces of subjective representation, even the textual descriptions remain sober, only the what, where, and when are described, the personal pronoun is nowhere to be seen. The “I” remains a hollow center, a kind of permanently intended omission. Fulton consistently omits it in order to circumvent and eliminate any self-centeredness, any individual arbitrariness; he does this in favor of a more general, universal language and articulation of questions about place, time, and being. Despite their rigidity, the wall texts are in no way nonsensuous; rather what’s rudimentary, fragmentary, and not included has an evocative effect and the scale of the images develop an immersive, almost compelling spatial dimension. Against the backdrop of a landscape — graphically reduced to the essential and cipher-like — Fulton’s telegram style develops an almost physical presence. The distanced quality of the descriptive and fragmentary language turns into a paradoxical form of proximity and immediacy. The tableaus develop a spatial dynamic that automatically point the recipient toward a specific viewer location in the space, thus choreographing him or her spatially in an almost subliminal manner.
Viewed by themselves, one could still speak of the semi-documentary content of the text configurations in each of the four tableaus. In the interplay of the simultaneity of the four wall texts, however, the viewer is confronted with the overlapping and penetration of the pictorial spaces and their semantic fields. Through this form of staging, which is no longer pictorial, but increasingly spatial and sculptural, Fulton succeeds in shifting the focus away from disembodied reading and looking towards the here and now of experience “in the work” and in the space. Having their physical presence addressed in this manner, viewers are made aware of themselves as perceiving agents.
In the semantically open-ended, connective “writing style” of his wall texts, Fulton seeks to create a more general and universal level of meaning and to achieve at the same time a form of concentrated urgency through the physical presence and spatial experience of the wall texts. The individual images’ overlapping and penetration of spatial and temporal references results in a meta-level, a more abstract level of reflection on place, space, and time.
With Fulton, both pictorial and linguistic levels are means to an end for generating an intensified phenomenological form of perception, free of the personal and the subjective. In this respect, classifying it as mere text arrangement and reducing it to the category of Conceptual art would be shortsighted. If anything, the act of perceiving as a physical, current dimension — which Fulton has been tracing all these years through walking — is located in the sculptural. But overemphasizing the body and the physical would again fall short. The body is also not the actual center, but merely a tried-and-tested means and medium for achieving this freer form of perception and thinking (while walking). Ultimately, the “essence” of Fulton’s walking as well as the wall paintings here proves difficult to convey. Fulton’s text arrangements reference something that cannot be directly represented, cannot be clearly grasped semiotically. What remains instead of illustration and representation is the possibility of referring, of indicating. The impossibility of direct representation and material manifestation determines the incompleteness and continuity of Fulton’s artistic undertaking, it simply serves as the inescapable reason to keep going. In approaching a form of perception, indeed of truth, that unites the senses and understanding, art is the most appropriate mode of articulation — and walking is, in turn, the most direct form of coming closer to this truth
Text: David Komary
Translation: Eric Smith