Now showing at the Turner Contemporary is the extraordinary Turner and the Elements – a broad spectrum from the painting thaumaturge’s career – and, in a room next door, the bold type of Hamish Fulton’s exhibit Walk. The latter defies generalisation, the terms “land artist” and “performance artist” being eschewed for a simpler, more open “walking artist.” The product of his trips are documents; photographic and texts and sketches. But the most striking are the vinyl wall-works of walks surmised into a literal yet lyrical statement, treated typographically and displayed on a huge scale.
“If I do not walk, I cannot make a work of art” Hamish says. The show is a selection from the last 40 years of the artist’s compulsive journeying that has seen him scale mountains, follow country by-lanes and everything in between in over 25 countries.
We are reminded that one might erase a line drawn on a map, but you cannot delete a walk – the environmental impact of all our actions being crucial to his art. Equally, you can buy an artwork but you cannot sell a walk.
As much as we take for granted or bypass our necessity to move about in the way we do, Hamish’s work is a mediative return to the sublime state of walking. “In mountaineering terms,” the artist reminds us, “reaching the summit is only half the journey.”
Although harmonious in their mutual appreciation of nature, Turner and the Elements could not be more of a different exhibition experience to Walk – but this is when galleries work best, I think.
Elements has been extraordinarily considered. Familiar as Turner’s work is to a relatively wide audience, there are plenty of studies and sketches and rarely-seen paintings on show. Also, the curator’s classical divisions between the elemental states – earth, water, fire, air – that frequently occur in the artist’s work is a sharp device not only to show off collections of familiar with non-familiar work, but also to contextualise each series within its historic and scientific situation.
Turner was painting at a crucial period as meteorology was born, the first 30 elements from the periodic table were completed and the poetic simplicity of the four natural properties attributed to all matter was undermined. His work was seen as very much a part of these novel debates about nature and, as he was close to a number of the leading scientists of the day, are closely linked to the age-defining discoveries.
The final theme in the show is the most fascinating as Turner’s own ability to depict not only the effect, but also causes of the elements – their processes of transformation and the their indistinguishability when in the tempestuous maelstrom of fusion.
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