ARTIST BOOKS IN THE GREAT OUTDOORS (PART 2) // Levi Sherman

15 Dec 2019 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

This post is the second half of my look into how Hamish Fulton and Richard Long use lists in their art, and how Ian Bogost’s concept of ontography provides a productive new way to engage these works.

In their move towards text, especially lists, both artists have maintained a complicated relationship with photography. This may reflect the tension between the photograph as representation and the photograph as enumeration. As a medium, it straddles the construct of landscape and the reality of the outdoors. As Bogost notes, “on the one hand, it offers a view of the world that is representational, thanks to the photographer's framing and choice of exposure. On the other hand, it offers an automatically encyclopedic rendition of a scene, thanks to the photographic apparatus's ability to record actuality.” However, as a visual medium, photography cannot record all of the actual experience. In “The Blue Mountains are Constantly Walking — On the Art of Hamish Fulton,” Andrew Wilson writes, “For all their brevity — arrangements of small numbers of single words — Fulton's text works do approach the essence of the walk in ways that the specificity of a photograph cannot. . . . These words, taken from his walk diaries are things that were observed by him on his walks — observations that provide a sense of place, season and measurement. However, by bringing seven words together — 'Wind Mist Rain Moss Lava Rock Sand' — he is, for instance, able to suggest something unseen but felt in that particular walk in southern Iceland in 1996 in ways that a photographic image could not.”

It is by turning to the book form that Fulton and Long overcome the limitations of what Wilson calls the “specificity of a photograph.” As a single image, the photograph is the list and the represented objects are the items it contains. In a book, the photographs themselves can become the list items. Bogost calls the list “a group of items loosely joined not by logic or power or use but by the gentle knot of the comma.” In the artist’s book, the binding itself is the comma. The book form brings together the disparate repleteness of reality through the simple force of connection and sequence. This frees photographs from their encyclopedic, denotative function and introduces a meta layer.

Fulton especially creates photographs that are as much about photography as the representational content. Jan Alber explains this same phenomenon in the context of fiction: “To begin with, the lists...serve a self-reflexive or metafictional function because, due to their stylistic peculiarity, they draw our attention to the linguistic medium.” Likewise, Fulton makes photographs that are unremarkable or even poor by conventional formal standards, but draw attention to the act of photography, to the photograph as one among many in the book (and thus one moment among many in the walk), and of the inadequacy of photography to replicate the photographer’s experience. One salient example is his book 10 Views of Brockman’s Mount, a naturally formed hill near Hythe, Kent, England, which seems to document a walk around the hill. A close look at the light and atmospheric conditions reveals that the images were made on different walks on different days. This revelation not only foregrounds photography as a medium, but also the book as a structure for producing inter-objective meaning, just as a simple comma brings together items in a list.

This change in the part-to-whole relationship of photography, from a photograph as a list to a list made of photographs, is just one way that Fulton draws parallels between the photograph and the word. Just as the repleteness of the photograph is limited by the frame (and the act of framing), so too does Fulton impose limits on text. Anne Moeglin-Delcroix points this out in her discussion of Fulton’s artist’s book, Ajawaan. “Knowing Fulton's work, always composed using what he has observed or encountered, we realize that the inventory is of elements actually seen. However, their choice is obviously constrained by the decision to only use four-letter words.” She further notes that the composition avoids any representational logic and “evokes, rather, an abstract work on language, of the kind found in concrete poetry.” Fulton and Long demonstrate a keen grasp of the stylistic peculiarity of photography and text alike, bringing them together to great effect in their artists’ books.

Fulton and Long are not landscape artists; they are artists of the great outdoors. They use lists to convey the reality of the objects in the world, even as the disruptive formal properties of enumeration show the impossibility of entirely sharing their experiences with viewers. Yet this impossibility does not lead the artists to correlationism — the belief that humans have only indirect access to reality. Rather, the inadequacy of photography and text matters to Fulton and Long precisely because they believe there is a real world that they engage directly on their walks. Their work has challenged viewers and critics for decades, but new materialism and related philosophical movements offer a promising and productive perspective on these important artists and their artists’ books in particular.


Works Cited

Alber, Jan. "Absurd Catalogues: The Functions of Lists in Postmodernist Fiction." Style 50, no. 3 (2016): 342-58. doi:10.5325/style.50.3.0342.

Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology, or, What It’s Like to Be a Thing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Moeglin-Delcroix, Anne. Ambulo Ergo Sum. Nature as Experience in Artists Books / Lexpérience De La Nature Dans Le Livre Dartiste. Köln: Buchhandlung Walther König, 2015.

Wilson, Andrew, et al. Hamish Fulton — Walking Journey: Exhibition: Tate Britain, London, 14 March–4 June 2002: Catalogue. Tate, 2002.


Levi Sherman is an interdisciplinary artist and designer in Columbia, Missouri.


Comments

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