New York

Hamish Fulton and Richard Long

How the work of Hamish Fulton differs from that of his friend and occasional walking companion Richard Long is not as easy to say as it first seems. What one has in the gallery, of course, are different kinds of souvenirs from the cross-country hikes Fulton and Long make in England, Scotland and Wales, as well as in Australia, Iceland, Africa, Peru and the Himalayas. Having made a walk, each artist will provide a photograph of some aspect of the country he has traveled through, and will caption it with information about the route, length and duration of the trip. In addition, Long will sometimes construct a sculpture in the wilderness using such materials as are at hand, and will then photograph the sculpture and bring the picture home. Again, he will sometimes bring home some material he found while walking, driftwood, for instance, and then make it into a gallery sculpture.

Beyond the fact that Long diverges into sculpture, there are some differences between him and Fulton in their handling of the photographic pieces, which are the main tangible works they pass on to us. Long’s pictures are fairly straightforward—the camera is placed in front of a scene, and the resulting, apparently uncropped image is mounted inside generous margins on a plain mat board. Fulton must have more at stake in photography since it is his main medium, and he plays with it more. He will show panoramic pictures that have been pieced together from three individual shots, details, and, in one case, a thin vertical strip composed of two entirely different scenes. More than this, Fulton is less parochial than Long, even in his simple, single pictures. He seems more concerned with having a catchy picture for a souvenir, and goes alternately for grand vistas, details of trees or rocks, and, off the Scottish coast, a view of the ocean almost completely submerged in mist. Long cares mostly about showing where he has been; each of his photographs offers a fairly broad expanse of scenery. This is not to say that Fulton makes more romantic pictures than Long; both have a predilection for skies filled with ominous, tumbling clouds, for lonely and desolate stretches of landscape, for nature at its least controlled and most bleak.

What I am describing in these artists’ work is a set of very deliberate pictorial choices. Yet neither artist would be likely to call himself a photographer, a maker of pictures. Nor, if we are fair to Fulton and Long, will we call them photographers. Despite the differences between them, their pictures look like the kind of quick general observations a person will make about a place when traveling through it in a hurry, and seeing only its most dramatic aspects. But the pictures do not convey much of the feel of walking—they do not try, like certain professional photographers’ works, to approximate the physical feeling of moving through space.

Clearly the central thing in Fulton’s and Long’s work, then, is the lost, past, invisible fact of their walks themselves. The knowledge that one of these men actually traveled for seven days and nights, on foot, through the most desolate surroundings is somehow enough to keep us looking at pictures which, otherwise, without the support of their captions and the fact of the walks, would seem hasty and undistinguished. It seems that the idea of their walks is what we respond to, not their pictures.

We are very pointedly given a sense of the walks’ dimensions by the captions in the works. A walk by Fulton may last for days, occur in mid-November, involve traveling cross-country through difficult terrain, and include such exotic and mysterious places as Unst, Zetland and Yell. Long’s works are more deliberately related to topography than Fulton’s—he will decide, for instance, to walk in the region of the river Avon, covering exactly as many miles as the river itself does. Both artists’ pictures suggest that the walker is solitary (even though he may not really be), that the weather is bad and that it is getting late. Even those works by Fulton that show nothing but a detail suggest much by their captions. What we are being given is the sense of a difficult, dangerous pilgrimage, a romantic wanderer’s trial, an extraordinary experience that we can never share.

The truth is, though, that Fulton and Long tell us rather little about what their walks, or any similar walk we could choose to make on our own, might be like. We don’t know whether they sleep in inns or sleeping bags, whether or not they carry their own food and whether or not they cook it, what they do when it rains, whether they meet anyone on the way or pass through towns, whether they ever get lost or scared or lonely or tired, whether they ever wish they were someplace else, or what they think about while walking. From their works we know nothing at all about Fulton and Long as individuals, and this is striking since the walks themselves are so clearly something that they as individuals choose to do, and are so filled with connotations of a private person’s struggle and difficulty. In fact, this absence of information communicates as much as what Fulton and Long do say in their works about how long, or when or where they walked.

It seems to me that something is being said here about art’s hermeticism and difficulty, about the supposed specialness of artists, and about two contradictory ideas, one old and romantic—that experience is solemn and personal and can only be communicated partially and unsatisfactorily—and the other modern and rationalistic—that one can achieve anything if one can quantify its doing, i.e. that one can have a spiritual pilgrimage if one will just walk so far so long. But I am not sure just how either Fulton or Long would comment on these subjects, for their works balance on the contradiction between the extraordinary and strange myth of a pilgrimage, and the prosaic, realistic language in which they tell it.

Of course, neither artist is all that content with plain language—both travel to more and more remote places each year, and Fulton’s pictures, at least, have become increasingly estheticized with the passage of time: occasionally they begin to look like record jackets. But the paradox of their work is that, for all its pretense of being artless and factual, we would have no sense at all of their romantic treks without the artful devices they use. One might say that Fulton and Long glorify and efface themselves at the same time.

Leo Rubinfien