At last Tate Britain delivers a truly subversive exhibition. One that will answer the critics of conceptual art and see off those who think that recent offerings like American Sublime have been too banal and unchallenging. Next week sees the opening of far and away the most important installation of the work of Hamish Fulton. Hamish describes himself as a "walking artist" and since the Sixties he has walked in the most remote parts of the world documenting different aspects of his journeys. Sometimes he walks alone, sometimes with other people. He takes photographs, makes charts and drawings. His philosophy is "no walk, no work".
He has walked Spain from north to south, walked 125 miles without sleep from Winchester to Canterbury, and hiked alone for 21 days in Montana. In another project he took 25 young artists from 15 countries on the same walk from Lake Como in Italy up into the hills every day at the same time for 14 days. This man has walked everywhere from Alaska to Iceland to Tasmania to Florida. In the process he has documented our environment in an intimate way, the way that only someone travelling by foot at three to four miles an hour would be able to.
Walking is the last truly subversive thing people can do. It's so subversive that Ken Livingstone (who always styles himself as a subversive) can't face banning cars and instituting walking as a way of getting around inner London, but opts instead for the soft alternative of congestion charges. President Blair shows how unsubversive he is, by never taking a walk where a photo opportunity will suffice. I've never met anyone less interested in walking. To appreciate how we are destroying our landscape and how fragile it is, you have to walk it. To see what's wrong with our cities the police and politicians need to get out of their squad cars and limos and start walking. Then the tidal wave of filth, urine, litter, dog shit, beggars, muggers and noise will perhaps move to the front of their brains, instead of being a background hum.
Everyone who walks in our inner cities knows that cutting edge architecture, heroic old buildings and improved public transport mean nothing if your walk through a city centre is a disgusting experience. Don't tell me we're clamping down on begging and people sleeping rough – just take a walk any day of the week through central London. There's no cleaning up process discernible. If more people walked, then political change would be more radical.
Like Hamish Fulton, I have become addicted to walking, and always have two or three major projects on the go at once. One is walking from my house in London to North Yorkshire alongside water (I've got to Leicester) and another is doing the whole route of the Thames. I use any spare days to take a train and pick up my walks wherever I left off. Last Monday I walked from Hampton Court to Richmond. It only took a couple of hours, but getting to Hampton Court from Waterloo via South West Trains was a trial I could not contemplate daily. No drivers were available, so we sat marooned for 45 minutes before grinding out of London. It's probably quicker to get to Paris now than use some of the commuter services from Surrey and Kent into central London. Incidents like this just reinforce the beauty of walking.
Unlike Hamish, who is an artist who walks, I'm a walker who may or may not document that process for my own enjoyment. Recently I curated part of an exhibition at the Fawcett Library in London, on women travellers. These indomitable Victorian females thought nothing of crossing the Indian subcontinent or Russia, documenting their journeys with photographs and detailed handwritten accounts of their meetings with politicians and priests. I am a somewhat anally retentive diarist, and on display is my rain-sodden copy of Alfred Wainwright's Coast to Coast Walk from 1985, filled with sarcastic asides, start to finish times and cryptic comments like "rain, more rain, then hurricane Charlie". Another of my logs, this time documenting a trip to Nepal, announces grandly on the title page "Janet and Janet's famous trip to the Himalayas, 1992". The other Janet was my walking companion, known (for obvious reasons) as nice Janet. But the point is, I enjoy walking but don't claim to be an artist, it's more a real-life comedy and tragedy.
It would be easy to dismiss the work of Hamish Fulton as romantic jottings, if it were not for the fact that his work has taken place during a period when the environment has moved to centre stage. By selecting to travel on foot, he makes a symbolic gesture in an age when whole economies are driven by the desire to shop. Commercialism is the main pollutant of our landscape, from shopping malls, to signage, to the discarded Big Mac wrappers you see by every roadside. Coke cans litter footpaths from Dungeness to Land's End. Walks on his scale are epic gestures, more potent than any anti-globalisation demonstration or boycott of supermarkets.
Walking forces you to reassess how you are prepared to live. In the process you will become fitter, leaner and meaner. You'll soon be intolerant of polluters and intruders. Walking means freedom. Walkers choose their route, their pace and their companions. What more could you ask for? Finally, walking gives you space to think – and pretty soon when you start to consider what we are doing to the environment you'll probably get rather angry.
¿ A report last week states the obvious – that the "bulge babies" born directly after the last war, who were teenagers in the Sixties, are still the generation that causes social change. Apparently we have gone from the sexual revolution to middle age kicking and screaming all the way. According to the survey, we can be divided into three groups – the self-centred narcissists, the silent radicals who are socially responsible and the older, family-orientated "stoic seniors". I hope no one paid too much money for this information. Who in their right minds is going to own up to being in the dreary second and third groups? Everyone I know is in category one: our favourite word – I; favourite subject – ourselves; top item of expenditure – anything that stops the rot of age, be it hair dye, a personal trainer, healthy food, vitamin pills, whatever. I've seen the future and it is designer old people's homes where like-minded baby boomer crumblies all have their individual suites, in stylish central locations. Limo services will take us out to entertainments, and there'll be in-house cafés serving liquidised food by top chefs. It's only a matter of time before Peter Jones stops the pretence that it's a department store and morphs into the first of these places. Next up, a helicopter link to its countryside branch at Balmoral, handed over by HRH as a cost-cutting gesture on her abdication.
¿ If you do one thing tomorrow night, then go to the last performance of Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle at Covent Garden. This new production is brilliantly designed by John Macfarlane and sung by Willard White and Katarina Dalayman. It is a mesmeric horror story, the operatic equivalent of The Fall of the House of Usher. Too bad, when the show has had such rave reviews and is only performed six times, that there were empty seats last week. I despair of opera audiences. It's all very well to talk about bringing opera to the masses via concert screens in parks, but when a world star like Willard White can't fill Covent Garden with an hour-long masterpiece, it is depressing.
Hamish Fulton: Walking Journey. Tate Britain, 14 March to 4 June, Millbank, London SW1. The Women's Library – An Encyclopedia of Women's History, Old Castle Street, London E1 (closed Sunday and Monday). 'Duke Bluebeard's Castle', The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London WC2. 11 March at 8.30pm, box office 020 7304 4000Reuse content