At Tate Britain

Peter Campbell

A retrospective exhibition of the work of Hamish Fulton is at Tate Britain until 4 June. Walking Journey is downstairs from, and in a sense complementary to, American Sublime, another celebration of wilderness, which David Craig wrote about in the last issue of the LRB.

Fulton has made many walks of many kinds in many places over the last thirty years. But because a walk must exist in the present, and take place elsewhere, all he has to offer in the gallery are wall inscriptions, captions, concrete poems, a few drawings and constructions, photographs and books. These must not, he insists, be confused with the work of art – which is the walk they refer to.

You can of course judge what you see and like it or dislike it, but as a photographer Fulton is not competing with Ansel Adams, and if the wall inscriptions look a bit like tasteful advertisements that’s OK because in a sense that’s what they are. The total effect is generous – whole walls with only a few sentences to be read – neat and rather bland.

Walking is a kind of sport and some of Fulton’s gallery art is to his walking art what any sports report is to the event. Walking can also be a personal exploration, even the kind of walk that is merely a pacing up and down, and some of Fulton’s output is mantra-like. Separating the walk from the advertisement does not relieve him of aesthetic problems. One which is endemic in reports by those who value the experience of walking on their own or with a few companions – exposed to the weather, sometimes in danger or exhausted, intensely aware of landscape, separated from the engrossing distractions of human society – is finding a way of referring to experience that doesn’t sound boastful, or seem to present moments of private revelation in a way which appears to call for applause. A marathon runner’s art takes place in public – the physical experience is no easier to imagine than the walker’s but the facts are in full view. He or she can afford to be silent. Walkers have to let people know how the walk went, and no matter how modestly they phrase their stories, can find themselves in the awkward position of saying ‘this was a wonderful, very private thing, so I am going to tell you all about it.’

Doug Scott, a climber who Fulton (not a climber) much admires, has contributed an essay to the catalogue about his ascent of Kangchenjunga with three other climbers and no oxygen, radios or large support teams.[*] Scott’s uninvasive way with mountains fits with Fulton’s desire to be an uninvasive walker. Scott, too, is a connoisseur of the experience of effort in the wilderness. ‘On Kangchenjunga we were frequently right on the edge and at the limits of our endurance. It is then that areas of our being that are normally hidden are revealed.’ He writes about his feelings after the first ascent of the South Pillar of Drohmo. ‘Now out of danger, but not yet engaged with the rest of humanity, we savoured the aftermath of our climb. This is the perfect moment, the reward – pay-off time for all the effort and risk above.’

Mountaineering prose like this is one model which Fulton’s little sentences about long walks bring to mind (but do not imitate). The other is the nature writing of the environmentally aware, which explains why the other catalogue essay is Bill McKibben’s ‘The World as Artefact’. There is no longer any such thing as man-free wilderness, McKibben writes. The chemicals we make, and which change our climate, affect everything. Fulton’s heroes include the Marathon Monks in Japan, who have been in a continuous walk round Mount Hiei for centuries, and the spokesmen of American Indian tribes; and there is a strong connection between his art of walking, their land-rooted beliefs and a wider ecological responsibility.

I tested a few walks I know, or know of, against Fulton’s walk art. Earlier this year my friend FG celebrated his 60th birthday by walking 60 miles along the banks of the Thames. He set off in the early hours of one morning and finished in the small hours of the next. When I was young in New Zealand the best walk I did was a ten-day trip (they call them ‘tramps’ there) from Lake Wanaka to Lake Wakatipu, over the Olivine ice plateau. We didn’t meet a soul. I was in the South Island again this year and spent a few hours walking in the Travers Valley – similar country, but we were following what is now more a tourist path than a tramping track. The sections where muddy trails would have cut through boggy ground are now protected by wooden walkways. You cross creeks on elegant little suspension bridges. Dr Johnson was an obsessional walker, going back up the street if he had not tapped every post, and a careful counter of paces. And I remember standing in the Joshua Tree National Park in California, thinking of what I had been told about the years it takes for time and weather to wear down the footprints you make on desert ground.

You can match such walking moments in extracts from Fulton’s printed work. (All the originals are set in capitals – my punctuation takes the place of line breaks and spaces in his layouts.) He is interested in distances, starting points, end points and time: ‘The North Sea. A non-stop 70-mile walk from the west coast to the east coast of Northern England summer 1977.’ He has gone to high, lonely places – much higher and lonelier than the New Zealand mountains: ‘Kilroy was here but the Dalai Lama wasn’t. A guided and sherpa-assisted climb to the summit plateau of Cho Oyu at 8175 metres via the classic route without supplementary oxygen. Tibet autumn 2000.’ He has a Johnsonian twitch about counting and touching: ‘counting 49 barefoot paces walking on grass Kent England. Day of the summer solstice 1999,’ and ‘touching boulders by hand, frozen ground, no paths, no talking. Seven days walking seven nights camping Serra da Estela Portugal January 1994.’ He is not a land artist, he flattens no grass and makes no patterns with twigs or boulders. He says that ‘whether walking in the “countryside” or in “wilder areas”’, he attempts to ‘practise the US “Wilderness” ethic of: leave no trace.’ He probably knows that it is never possible to leave no trace at all, and would both see why walkways are built in the bush and know that it was a sign that man’s mark on the world is invasive even when intentions are benign.

So the experience is a shared one. But what to do with it? Less dedicated and professional walkers than Fulton are also obliged to leave laconic descriptions of where they have come from and where they are going in the logbooks of mountain huts – people should know where to look for you if you go missing – and prodigies of endurance and speed are implied by bald accounts of times between huts, peaks climbed and rivers forded. Some of Fulton’s records do the same thing: ‘night changing shapes a continuous 106-mile walk without sleep country roads Kent and Sussex England 14 15 November 1991.’

I like walking. I admire Fulton’s tenacity and liked thinking about his walks. But galleries are galleries and hills are hills. His walks are art to him, a source of art to us. His gallery pieces – like any other essentially autobiographical exploration – can’t help but be, in essence, advertisements for himself. No matter how pared down, oblique and unemotive, they still read as celebratory inscriptions.

[*] Hamish Fulton: Walking Journey by Ben Tufnell and Andrew Wilson. Tate, 144 pp., £24.99, 14 March, 1 85437 411 7