A line made by walking in the Antipodes
One foot in front of the other – simple – and then again. Walking. I’m going slow, intentionally. But not as slow as if I was practising a walking meditation, I’m not concentrating on the minutiae of each step. I haven’t brought myself inwards and focused on a particular aspect of the action in order to let my peripheral being drop away. I still hear the breeze in the trees and feel the loose stones underfoot. I’m just letting the world slip by, step by step. I’m not in a rush to go anywhere. It’s as if I’m walking as a kid again. Innocence and motion. Walking alone with no friends around, no homework, out in the back garden strolling, just being.
The big difference however, between what I’m doing and children’s ambling is that I am pacing back and forth on the same patch of stubbly grass. Ahead of me is a stand of gum trees, ancient looking, all powdery bark and twisted limbs. Past them is the skyline of the Brindabella Range, a ragged line of densely forested hills quivering in the summer heat. I turn and follow my footprints in the grass back in the opposite direction. Five meters and I turn again, following the line. This is it, back and forth until the repetition has led to the erasure of individual prints and created a compressed stripe of compacted grass across the pasture. A line made by walking.
After half an hour or so when I’m satisfied that the imprint is a consistent stroke and not a series of confused foot marks I carefully walk away, trying not to leave a trace in the process of exiting, and observe my footwork from a distance. It is identifiable as created, not something organically produced by the elements, it looks made, straight and obviously human fabricated. Visible nature does not deal in straight lines.
Strangely I don’t have a feeling about it, I’m not proud of my work, I don’t consider it beautiful or ugly. It is a mark in the landscape, temporary, but made by my feet and maybe that’s its significance – some thing made by me while walking.
I think about taking a picture with my phone but decide against it. It’s there now and when I return in week or two it will be gone, taken back by nature. I’m intrigued though with the thought that someone will come along in the next day or two and see the line – so obviously intentional and inorganic. What will they think? A blasphemy on the landscape, or an intriguing addition? Will any of them recognize it as art?
The mark is a homage to the British artist Richard Long’s 1967 work, A Line Made By Walking. When Long was 22 he took a train out of London, found a quiet meadow and there he walked back and forth until his footprints had become a line, then he photographed it and the resulting work undermined much of what had been accepted in Western sculpture.
Permanency or a lack of it was central to this new conception, from the earliest known sculpture in the world; the ivory Lion-man of the Hohlenstein-Stadel 38,000 years ago (Dalton, 2003) to the massive steel and bronze works of Anthony Caro or Henry Moore artists have had the urge to create work that would outlast them. Long upended this tradition by creating sculptures, a line in the grass, a circle of stones, an intentional cairn of found rocks, that were transient and could only be claimed as sculpture in the moment or through a photograph the artist took of them. As the Long said, ‘the material and the idea are of the place; sculpture and place are one, the same… The place for a sculpture is found by walking (Maplas, 2011, p.196).
As the former director of London’s Tate Gallery, Nicholas Serota wrote in the catalogue for Long’s Heaven and Earth exhibition in 2009, ‘In A Line Made by Walking (1967)… Long changed our notion of sculpture and gave new meaning to an activity as old as man himself. Nothing in the history of art quite prepared us for the originality of his action.’ (O’Hagan, 2009)
A Line in the Himalayas, Richard Long
Walking has been an intrinsic element of Long’s art over the past 50 years. He is motivated by the flexibility of walking as a medium, as he has said, ‘The idea of originality is important to me; the sense that, despite the many traditions of walking – the landscape walker, the walking poet, the pilgrim – it is always possible to walk in new ways (O’Hagan, 2009).’
I get pleasure from Long’s art. As he said, ‘I like simple, emotional, quiet, vigorous art,’ (Maplas, 2011, p.69). These are ideas that attract me. Probably my favourite piece of Long’s is A Line in the Himalayas (1975), like A Line Made by Walking it is a simple photographic work of a long, pale coloured rectangle that the artist has created by moving light coloured stones into a delineated area on a open slope leading to dramatic high peaks somewhere in the central Himalayas. I get a rush every time I see this work, it reminds me of times and places from my own past, but I also recognize traces of the Tibetan Buddhist prayer stone walls that lead into every village across those great mountains and to the Buddhist notion of impermanency, how the earth is always moving and changing and how we are present only temporarily in this body, and through that I glimpse a confidence in Richard Long, of how he’s able to step out of traditional religious beliefs and create his own path through walking and engaging with the earth around him.
The process of walking has played a central role in the creation of Long’s personal and artistic philosophy, as he has said,
…like art itself, it (walking) is like a focus. It gets rid of a lot of things and you can actually concentrate. So getting myself into the solitary days of repetitive walking or in empty landscapes is just a certain way of emptying out or simplifying my life… So my art is a simplification (Maplas, 2011, p.90)
Long claims he doesn’t create art in the Romantic tradition, ‘What I do is not Wordsworthian. I am working out of an art tradition, but it’s not Romantic. I’m not a tortured soul grappling with my demons or even struggling to make art. It’s a pleasure. That is central to it for me (O’Hagan, 2009).’
Certainly he’s not creating his walk works to inspire transcendent awe in the way the Romantics were, however there is a connection between Long, von Guerard and Wordsworth in that the walk is intrinsic to the creation of the art – a painting in the case of North-east view from the northern top of Mount Kosciusko and a sculpture in the case of A Line Made By Walking.
This idea of walking in service of the art was subverted about the same time as Long was making his early sculptures by one of his close associates Hamish Fulton. Fulton and Long had studied together at the St. Martins School of Art in London in 1968 and 1969. Their work evolves from many of the same influences, but whereas Long uses a walk to create a separate artwork Fulton’s walks become the art.
Since 1973 Fulton’s practice has been directed by a philosophy of,
Only art resulting from the experience of individual walks. /Only = Not a generalized response to nature. /art resulting from = First the walk second the artwork. /the experience of = A walk must be experienced it cannot be imagined. /individual walks = Each walk has a beginning, middle and an end. (Tufnell and Wilson, 2002, p.21)
Fulton takes walks, usually by himself, from single day strolls near his home in England to multi-week treks around the world and then makes art that refers to the walk.
As the critic Andrew Wilson has said,
Such a practice revolves around the attempted recovery of experience. Fulton does not document or describe the walk but instead, through the ordering of his own responses to each walk – formed and delivered either using words, images or a combination of the two – aims to allow the viewer to touch, somehow, the experience of the walk. (Tufnell and Wilson, 2002, p. 20)
The Precious Mountain, Hamish Fulton
Fulton wants us to experience the magic that walking has created, as he has said, ‘WALKING TRANSFORMS, WALKING IS MAGIC (A walk must be experienced it cannot be imagined) (Fulton, 2001b, no pages).’ Initially Fulton, like Long, used photographs overlaid with words that reflected images, objects, animals or feelings he had encountered during the walk onto the print. For example the work Bird Rock (1988) features a picture of a round boulder in the middle of a broad Arctic meadow, the top of the grey stone is covered in chalky white bird excrement and in the background bare mountains are shaded by ominous rain clouds; across the bottom of the photograph is printed, ‘A Twelve And A Half Day Walk On Baffin Island Arctic Canada Summer 1988’.
Bird Rock like so many of Fulton’s works has a tension between the visual and the written – the picture is conveying a stream of information but the minimalist text is directing us to concentrated and frequently invisible aspects of the image.
Bird Rock brings up so many questions about Fulton’s experience of walking in the arctic, but at the same time, having been to similar locations, I can relate to the artist’s understanding; the deep fatigue in my thighs from carrying a pack for twelve days, the wet socks from hour after hour of trudging across spongy, water saturated summer tundra and the existential awe at being alive in such a wondrous and magnificent world.
Fulton took his practice even farther into the minimal in the 1990s by eliminating visual imagery from most of his works and relying only on words or patterns to convey the experience of the walk. Painted directly onto gallery walls the words or repetitive shapes condense the quality of the walk even further. Fulton’s work takes on the feeling of a Japanese haiku as he has said,
The price I pay for not mimicking nature, is that I provide written (or spoken) information about my walks. This information is always in word form but as we struggle through a Cairngorm blizzard – there are no words in nature (Fulton and Finlay, 2000, p.191).
From a storytelling perspective Fulton is intriguing because he is using language in its sparsest form to convey what he considers the essence of his walks. The intensity of Fulton’s concentration on individual words actually makes the experience of the artwork even more penetrating.
But Fulton’s practice is at odds with commercial gallery art as he has said, ‘An object cannot compete with an experience (Fulton, 2001b, no pages).’ Where Richard Long will transport stones from a location to a gallery to create a sculptural work Fulton believes in minimum impact and that ‘Nature should neither be a ‘smithy’ nor the ‘experimental laboratory’ for things which are then to be presented in another, more suitable place for art (Fulton, 2001a, p.145).’
Fulton is a provocateur, he is creating minimalist art that reflects the spirit of his life. His life is his art and he conveys that through references to human motion. Walking acts as the medium between Fulton’s experience with higher consciousness and his audience. As the critic Angela Vettesse has said, ‘Fulton is convinced that the only valid way of presenting art is to ensure the viewer can ‘live’ it. This message is the most revolutionary aspect of his work (Fulton, 2001a, p.145).’
‘Fulton’s actual concern… is, rather, that the eternal dilemma arising from the gulf between the fundamental loneliness of the individual, the incommunicability of what he experiences and the equally deep rooted need to communicate his experiences and to share them with others (Fulton, 2001a, p.145)’
Fulton’s great mission is one of humanity’s universal challenges, how do we convey the experience of life? Fulton calls himself a walking artist, his life is focused around the experience that that most basic of actions yields. There is a universality in that practice, but they are still Fulton’s walks and Fulton’s experiences. How have artists shifted that understanding of the art of walking on to a more individual plane?