Hamish Fulton

Hamish Fulton has sometimes been regarded as the poor man’s Richard Long. Both artists attended St. Martin’s School of Art in the late ’60s, where they became friends. They simultaneously developed a new form of landscape art in which country walks and treks were documented using combinations of photographic image and printed text. But whereas Long made deft interventions in the landscape—most famously, making circles and lines of stones, which he subsequently recreated in the gallery—Fulton merely photographed what he saw and brought back no sculptural residue.

The impressive retrospective at Tate Britain Droves that Fulton’s is a distinctive, often powerful voice. Fulton may intervene less in the landscape than Long, but his work is far more vehement and confrontational. Nature is not something intimate that can be effortlessly realigned like chess pieces or children’s building blocks; it is immutable and remorseless. Two recurrent images are large boulders and open roads. Boulders are frequently photographed in close-up so that they fill the whole image or the foreground of a panoramic shot. Touching Boulders by Hand, Portugal, 1994, documents an arduous seven-day walk through the Serra de Estrela in Portugal. A close-up photograph of a large, rotund boulder perched precariously on a mountaintop is accompanied by a caption that reads FROZEN GROUND NO PATHS NO TALKING. Fulton’s ability to touch boulders “by hand” is an assertion of masten but also of impotence in the face of the ungraspable and immovable. Indeed. the work evokes Sisyphus, who was condemned to push a boulder uphill forever because it always rolled down again when it reached the top.

The most striking of Fulton’s open-road pieces is a billboard-scale photographic wall work that depicts a bleak country road in Spain during the winter of 1990. The empty road stretches out in front of us as far as the eye can see. Inscribed over the image in large capital letters are the words WARM DEAD BIRD and below that in smaller letters WALKING AGAINST THE ONCOMING TRAFFIC. Fulton waked coast to coast from north to south, accompanied by Long. But again the journey is imagined as a Sisyphean experience, this time potentially lethal, with the artist pushing onward against the traffic, always fearful of being forced back and becoming roadkill. The texts are deliberately melodramatic—after all, where is the traffic? And who cares about a dead bird? But they reflect the way in which a sensorily deprived imagination can blow banal perceptions out of proportion. The aggressive advertising typography, which blocks off so much of the background of the picture, implies that the journey may be gridlocked with mental traffic.

Fulton’s work, like Long’s, is usually seen in relation to an English pastoral landscape tradition going from Constable to Henry Moore. Yet there is a classical austerity and a feeling of foreboding that makes one think of Poussin’s Et in Arcadia ego. (Long might be closer to Claude Lorrain.) The motif of the straight road stretching out before us perspectivally, suggesting the journey of life, derives from Poussin’s Landscape with a Roman Road, ca. 1648, in the Dulwich Picture Gallery. The composition of Untitled (South Dakota and Wyoming), 1969, in which Fulton stands on a distant precipice in the Badlands of South Dakota facing the viewer and holding a mirror, recalls the French painter’s Landscape with Hercules and Cacus, 1658–59, in which the hero stands on a distant mountainside brandishing his club. But unlike the wham, bam, one-off labors of Hercules, the labors of Hamish are hauntingly repetitive.

James Hall