London

Hamish Fulton

Serpentine Galleries

The work of Hamish Fulton has been described as originating from “the experience gained during walks made in the landscape,” as “travelling toward a kind of primal self that perhaps only exists in nature as a pure non-judgemental, non-theoretical force,” and as reflecting a relationship to nature that is “one of deep, almost religious respect.” To consign two decades of the artist’s work to this sort of mystification strikes me as patently wrongheaded: such claims evade both the origin of Fulton’s work in Conceptual art and the continued importance of the issues raised by the movement to an understanding of his project.

Indeed, to think back over Fulton’s career is to be thrust into the heart of darkness of Conceptual art. It’s not too difficult to demonstrate how descriptions of his work sustain the “dematerialization” myth. Yet, while the trope of dematerialization underscores the antimaterialist, antiestablishment aspirations of Conceptual art, it nevertheless came to valorize the managerial model that the artists of the ’60s eventually assumed. Thus, Fulton’s project takes its place in a world where intellectual readymades with little sense of cultural displacement announced a new kind of bureaucratic legitimation (Charles Harrison).

Fulton illustrates this unhappy situation by presenting us with walks as though they were Adamic field trips; except that nothing is named but the walk itself. Captions are appended to photographs in such an uncompromising matter-of-fact way that we soon forget the claim that it is the “walk,” rather than the representation of the walk, that is at issue. This claim is typical of ’60s strategies that included actions, events, and pseudo-events, and despite Fulton’s casting as fiercely individualistic and possessed ofhigh moral purpose. he is, in fact, typical of his conceptual peers. Indeed, if Fulton is not careful to skirt this romantic rhetoric, his work may well be mistaken for a send-up of the life work of another great British trekker, W. A. Wainwright.

Fulton’s project is much more meaningful and engaging when it is read in the conceptual context; this is clearly seen in the artist’s later works. These wall-sized, language-based pieces take as their starting point the same type of laconic texts found in his earlier works, but do so with more rigor and power, owing both to their scale and to the decision to eliminate the photographic landscape image. Here, landscape figures simply as a jagged line invoking a mountainous horizon. As a series of reductive inventories this body of work suggests—in a gently mocking way inaccessible to the earlier positivist summations—precisely what is at stake when the audience is invited to “complete” a work within the parameters of an “administered” display.

We should keep in mind that calling attention to the fact that art can be something as modest and accessible as a walk is part of Fulton’s game. But, paradoxically, Fulton is not be convincing until he purges his work of the landscape references. When Fulton’s work fails, it is because we get the sense that the metaphysic of the landscape is intruding—that it is reasserting the very Modernist intentionality that Conceptual art has always challenged. On another level, an esthetic based on reductive, radically empiricist epistemological principles has to continually work against brute managerial pretensions. When Fulton becomes both manager and esthete, his work collapses, and his well-known dictum “no walk—no work” goes down with it.

Michael Corris