Hamish Fulton: Walk and Turner and the Elements lift the spirits at Turner Contemporary

08/02/2012 | 08 February 2012
A photo of blocks of writing on gallery walls showing words to do with geography and China
© Courtesy David Grandorge
Exhibitions: Hamish Fulton: Walk, until May 7; Turner and the Elements, until May 13 2012, Turner Contemporary, Margate

On a freezing winter’s day, Margate’s faded glamour makes for invigorating walking territory. Behind the blocks of the Turner Contemporary, through the huge window behind Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss, which dominates the ground floor, the sandy beaches stretch out to the Kent sea.

If the surrounding scenery sets you up for an immersive experience within two shows saluting the glory of nature, there’s a poetic tie-in. JMW Turner lived and went to school within these streets; when he returned later in his life, he lived with Mrs Booth (his landlady and lover) in a house on the very spot where the gallery was built.

So his oft-quoted proclamation of the Thanet skies as “the loveliest in all of Europe” becomes real. To gaze out of the windows in between marvelling at his punch-packing paintings of earth, wind, fire and water is to see the same views much of his inspiration came from.

And the way he sees the wild can only expand our appreciation and enjoyment of it: mountain tops swathed in mist in the Peak District at the end of the 18th century, flowing, airy watercolours of endless empty hills in Italy, storms and shipwrecks where water seems capable of consuming all before it.

The Houses of Parliament go up in flames before his eyes in 1834 but, in preference to capturing public outcry, Turner only finds the fury of fire, flames and smoke taking prominence in a flurry of sketches reflecting the artist’s scientific inquisitiveness. Aside from his breathtaking skill, Turner and the Elements is as uplifting as a stomp up a hill at the height of spring.

On the balcony and next door, Hamish Fulton is also full of wanderlust. He describes himself as a walking artist, but he marches so far each week he could probably qualify as a walking Olympian. You might feel jealous of his awesome journeys were his feats not so physically arduous (and, occasionally, dangerous).

But unlike, to name an obvious comparison, Richard Long, Fulton returns with something cleaner than mud, clay, or stones, and – if this is possible in works showing the words “Water”, “Paths”, “River” and “Tides” in huge typefaces on a blue square scaling the gallery wall – more subtle.

In between these words, his expeditions are spelled out (in this case, a six-day walk on paths, pavements and roads following the course of the Thames between Gloucestershire and Kent).

The devil is in the detail – the smallprint of his red and black account of the time when he scaled Mount Everest, briefly becoming the oldest man ever to do so, speaks of the Nepal-Tibet border, an 8,850-metre summit and a 49-day expedition, but his thoughts loom large above them – the Chinese economy, justice for Tibet, freedom for a people, solitude and silence.

The letters of the word Dolomites jut up a domino structure made to look like a mountain, imposed over a spectacular photo of the summits in Italy in 2004, more than 3,000 metres high. Fulton walks in silence for 14 days in beartooth mountains, encounters solstices, lakes, full moons and every extreme.

But what he really wants to do is let the viewer’s imagination go wild, as statements become declarations – “this is not land art”, “an object cannot compete with experience”. Bringing the outside in might be impossible, but turning every inch of the Earth into a story is something Fulton manages between four walls.

On the balcony, his dual-screen film shows more than 100 people slowly circumnavigating a Margate bathing pool, like ghosts dressed in black (it was described as a "bizarre arts event" locally when it was filmed at the start of 2010, alongside health and safety mutterings).

Slow, silent and meditative, the piece finally gives Fulton control over one geographical formation, but also perhaps symbolises mankind’s repeated circling of an environment it can never tame. Between Fulton’s contemporary quests and Turner’s visions of 200 years ago, the natural world has never seemed so full of possibilities.

  • Open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-6pm (6pm-10pm monthly Fridays, see Late Night Live for details). Admission free.

More pictures:

An image of an oil painting of a ship on an angry sea
JMW Turner, From The Ports of England 1826-1828 Watercolours, Ramsgate (circa 1824). Pencil and watercolour on paper© Tate, London 2011
An image of an oil painting of people on a sandy beach at sunset
JMW Turner, The New Moon; or, 'I've Lost my Boat, you Shan't Have Your Hoop' (exhibited 1840)© Tate, London 2011
An image of an oil painting of a sea swirling under a grey sky
JMW Turner, Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth (exhibited 1842). Oil on canvas© Tate, London 2011
An image of a grey block in a gallery wall with text pertaining to travelling on it
Hamish Fulton: Walk (installation view, Turner Contemporary 2012)© Courtesy David Grandorge
An image of a black ink drawing of mountains on a gallery wall
Fulton was the oldest person to have summitted Mount Everest, but his record stood for just two days© Courtesy David Grandorge
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