Hamish Fulton

A conversation with Miguel Fernández-Cid

April 2008

Hamish Fulton: “I am an artist who walks, not a walker who makes art.”

The Road. Short routes through the Iberian Peninsula, 1979-2008 is the descriptive name of Hamish Fulton’s exhibition (London 1946), organised by Ortega Muñoz Foundation and presented at MEIAC, and showing an excellent insight of his vital and aesthetic philosophy, as well as his intense relation with Spain.

Hamish Fulton defines himself as a “walking artist”, and confesses he needs the physical experience of walking: “If I were a painter, I would go into my atelier and paint pictures. Then, art collectors would be able to buy those pictures, knowing they could have some commercial value if they so wished. In that sense, I consider that a painter is a person who commits to his activity. In the case of my own art, I see it as divided in two different parts: first, the experience of walking, and in the second place the production of and artistic result. Art derived from walking has a potential of being varied. For example, when I walk in a group, I consider the other walkers as both participants and observers. In other words, walkers are participating and seeing the walk as a work of art. I have been walking and making art about walking for the last forty years. When I was a young artist, I took the firm decision of linking walking and art. I address the walks with an artist’s perspective, that’s why I call myself a walking artist. Walking has the possibility of touching many aspects in one’s life: relaxation, exercise, meditation, health, brain oxygenation, transport, sport, pacific demonstrations, art and much more”.

By watching him at the beginning of one of his walks, the attention is drawn to his ascetics, which is functional in the case of his luggage, but also ideological and conceptual in his attitude. His walks are a means of inner conversation. He always walks watching “the optical triangle of a straight route disappearing in infinity”. The texts going with his images draw our attention in the clarity of the separation between his attitude towards a walk (“The road ahead”) and the physical certainty (“The land below the feet”). He appears rigorously abiding to some “rules” imposed from the beginning: “As a contemporary artist, my rule was to walk the route at once, not in parts, and never by bike. These clear rules keep the essence of walking”.

In the books documenting short walks, he usually includes self-interviews. In one of them, he shoots the key question: “Why walk? Walking is the answer”. I ask him to go deeper. “Why walk? Walking is the answer means, to me, that walking is not a theory, walking is not an artistic material; walking is an experience, an artistic way on its own right. After walking several days, I have the impression that I can think more clearly, questions arise and I mentally struggle to answer them. Walking through paths leaves time for analysing and philosophising, walking through mountains requires more relaxed but alert physical attention. In some walks I take a brief and light book that may allow for contemplation at night, in the tent, such as phrases by the Chinese Taoist Lao-Tzu. Current politicians in Beijing should have read the following words by Lao-Tzu, instead of taking repressive measures against the Tibetans: If anyone desires to take the Empire in hand and govern it, I see that he will not succeed. The Empire is a divine utensil that may not be roughly handled. He who meddles with it, mars. He who holds it by force, loses it.”

These books usually open and close with images of mineral water labels, from the water he consumes in his walks. “I make collages with mineral water labels that I pull out of the plastic bottles of water that I drink in my walks. A serious dehydration may lead to spoiling a walk. Indirectly, these collages with water labels are a comment on the selling of water, and the elimination of plastic containers. Water is a subject of capital importance… the wars on water. Some time ago in our history, water was for free: now, due to the demand and the climate change, we have to pay for it. We pay for a magic substance that cannot be produced in factories by human beings. While part of the not consumed water ends up in the sewage, in other parts of the world there are people dying of thirst and desperately needing clean water. Water inspires me as an artist; it can arrive at many places. I consider that walking and words share that independent characteristic of water. Words can be translated from one language to another, be seen in many kinds of material, or simply be heard”.

He walks routes and paths, never highways, and vindicates his walks as a political act in a world dominated by cars. His reasons are different from the pilgrim’s, who warned him he was walking the wrong sense when he walked The Road to Santiago in the inverse sense. “I have walked through Spanish routes and highways. Our world has been built for cars, and from time to time a small rural path becomes a speedy and dangerous highway. Those who have planned the highways have forgotten to give legal alternatives for walkers, so you can only step back or break the law and go on. As regards current pilgrimages, I am for them, not against them. I don’t hold a catholic faith, and I can’t obey rules that would link me to Rome’s pope. As a contemporary artist, my attitude is inclusive; I accept all categories of walking, I get informed on them. I see the artistic walk as something that contributes in a creative way to the spectrum of traditional walks. As you were mentioning before, I have done the Road to Santiago in the opposite sense. I have also witnessed the positive energies this pilgrimage may generate. My religion is nature: clouds, wind, rain, darkness, starlight, the sun, the moon, birds, stones, lizards, rivers… the sea and the mountains”.

And what about Kavafis’ idea, that it was not important to get to the final destination (Itaca) but to experience the trip?

“As a walking artist I like savouring the trip, in its sense of transition, and at the same time to experience the satisfaction of walking all the road, till the chosen destination. To feel that euphoric state, quiet, standing at the end of a walk from coast to coast, looking at the sea. My photographs of empty highways may hold some relation with this. I took them all at different times of specific trips, but the also convey the idea of going nowhere. I took them all as a walker, not as a driver”.

His name is frequently linked to Richard Long, with whom he made his first projects, when students of the prestigious St. Martins School of Art in London, and with whom he travelled the Iberian Peninsula from coast to coast twice, in 1989 and 1990. However, Fulton observes the landscape, he does not modify it (“All texts and photographs in the walk are the artist’s work. None of the stone buildings are his”, warns a note preceding the images of a catalogue). He is also related to Land artists, but, as the artist suggests when he remembers one of his “commercial climbs”, “out of the world of art”, climbing the Denali in Alaska: “Mi private reason to reach the Delani’s peak was to make a comment on Land Art. As far as I know, no North American contemporary artist has seen this lake in Art History. Contrary to a work of Land Art, arriving at the top of the Denali only leaves temporal prints on the snow; but carbon prints cannot be hidden under layers of snow”. I ask him to comment on what makes his work something specific: “What makes my work something specific? My work is said to be hard to understand! That might be true, but I have never tried to make deliberately difficult art. Quoting Lao-Tzu: Difficult and easy mutually become reality. I am an artist who walks, not a walker making art. I am committed to walking”.

Two books have been edited by reason of this exhibition, which are closer to the artist’s idea of a book than to a catalogue. In Río Luna Río  [River Moon River], he remembers his walk in Extremadura, through the Via de la Plata, in 2008; in El camino  [The Road] there is a look on his short walks around the Peninsula. In one of the texts in the latter, Fulton is quite eloquent when describing his relation with Spain: “In 2001, when I was beginning to think once more of doing walks in Spain, I had to ask myself, Why Spain? The answer is crystal clear. Spanish people (I think) in the post-Franco period are (still) in a good mood. Sometimes I feel that entire countries have individual personalities. Spain: good mood. United States: authoritarians. China: not assuming responsibilities. They are simple but repetitive answers. Furthermore, Why Spain? In practical terms, Spain is for me the country where I personally felt most comfortable (informs an eye-witness) to walk routes. Walk like a car. Eat like a dog”.

It is tempting to interpret Fulton’s projects in a symbolic key. I suggest him to talk about how came up the idea of walking, following a spiral pattern, from Finisterre, the end of the world for the Romans, to Toledo, the city where Christians, Muslims and Jews coexisted. He does not hesitate: “In my 2005 walk from Finisterre to Toledo it wasn’t about the spiral shape. I designed the route on the basis of the directions of five coast-to-coast walks in Spain and Portugal that I made between 1989 and 2004. The supposed spiral shape reflects the walk’s five directions, East, South, West, North and East again, to finally arrive at the centre of the country. When an artist paints a spiral, he can control scale, colour and texture. When I walk, I set myself in a world I do not control, where many associations, conditions and coincidences may happen or be discovered. One might argue that my short walk links Roman influence to the coexistence of the three cultures. Even though, for me it was more about stopping at the end in Toledo, knowing I was being surrounded by a 1,552-mile walk”.