Saturday, September 02, 2006

Walking from Lake Como

The other day I was talking to a friend about the fashion for participative art works. This kind of relational aesthetics opens up many interesting possibilities for artists (or ‘semionauts’ as Nicolas Bourriaud calls them…) And yet there’s also a risk of it leading to worthy and banal institutional art, especially when funding for an installation is predicated on the idea that it will ‘engage’ with local people in some way. There are incentives for landscape artists to devise conditions in which art can be created in collaboration with the public: sound walks, mapping projects, artistic renovation and reclamation activities, and so on. How much of this activity will have lasting aesthetic value is an interesting question.
One of the more recent developments in Hamish Fulton’s work has been the organization of group walks. For example, in 1998 Fulton took 25 artists from 15 countries on group walks in the hills around Lake Como in Italy (commemorated in Pilgrims’ Threads). In 2002 he got 25 people to walk 10 kilometres backwards on footpaths at the Domaine de Chamarande (see photograph on his website). A group walk is entirely different to a solo walk, leaving behind associations with Romantic individualism and linking instead to traditions of protest and pilgrimage. Nevertheless in making increasingly extreme and testing walks (Fulton suffered frostbite in Tibet in 2000) he still sometimes gives the appearance of the Modern Artist seeking out his own existential limits. For this kind of climbing though, Fulton has needed to join commercial expeditions. Above a certain altitude, walking has to be collaborative.
It should be pointed out that Fulton has not always walked alone. Between 1972 and 1990 he made eleven trips in the company of Richard Long. Back in 1967 Fulton and Long organised a slow group walk from Greek Street to St Martin’s College which can be seen in a similar light to the recent collaborative walks. Rather than responding to the fashion for collaborative art, Fulton has returned to the type of performance that characterised his earliest experiments in the art of walking. How interested he is in the idea of engaging with the wider public might be gauged from his reaction to an interviewer (in the catalogue to his Tate Britain show) who asked whether he wanted to encourage others to make walks. Fulton replied: “For the first twenty years I didn’t really consider it. But in more recent times I’ve been thinking that it’s not a bad idea. It’s a potentially interesting by-product.’

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