Richard Long, A Line in the Himalayas, 1975. © the artist, courtesy of Tate Britain.
Heaven and Earth:
Richard Long at Tate Britain
by Anna Leung
My work has become a simple metaphor for life.
Art is the one good thing about human life.
Richard Long was born in 1945. Some twelve years later a man-made satellite was launched into space and circled the earth. Richard Long does not mention this technological breakthrough, which altered our relationship to the world and to space, but I surmise that it must have affected him. Rather than triumph one of the first reactions was a sense of relief that man was no longer fated to be a prisoner on this earth. But a contrary response was to consciously cherish this our home planet and to recognise the vulnerability of our shared human existence upon it; new relationships between the cosmos and the self and between the macrocosm and the microcosm were called into being. Richard Long’s art relates to this shift in thinking about the external world both in its objective scope and in its subjectivity. While originally all to do with his feet marking out lines in the landscape, his work, which he insists is practical and down to earth, also has a cosmic and universal resonance.
This is anticipated in what functions as an anteroom to the exhibition with two hand painted hexagrams, each taking up a whole wall. Taken from the I Ching, the Chinese book of divination, they represent the two main polar entities that underpin all natural events and human activities, Heaven and Earth. Heaven is made up of unbroken lines and represents the masculine, active principle; Earth of broken lines and represents the female, passive principle. Together with one other hand-painted wall painting, White Water Line, and the six floor pieces in the main gallery, they make up Richard Long’s site specific gallery works that complement the documentation of his walks as sculpture; works made in the gallery as opposed to works made in the landscape.
Richard Long was studying in London at St Martins in the late sixties, a time of seismic paradigm shifts and aesthetic re-evaluations in the art world. Painting and sculpture, once characterised by their autonomy as self contained disciplines began to open up to inter-disciplinarity. Boundaries between the arts became permeable and artists were therefore able to navigate between disparate forms, having as their aim to integrate thinking and seeing, the physical and the mental. This coincided with the emergence of a post-modernist tendency which rejected the idea of a work of art as a self-limiting idealist construct confined to an ivory tower of its own making. Abstraction, with its potential to transcend the contingencies of day to day living, had been particularly favoured by this aesthetic position, reaching its apogee with Abstract Expressionism. A major critique of this position was based on a rejection of this type of inwardness, and what the next generation of artists sought to emphasise was therefore not what they viewed as self indulgent expressivity but painting as a factual entity, based either on its own laws (paradoxically still Greenbergian) or on images taken from the real world. Central to both endeavours, and possibly of even greater importance, was an anti-illusionistic stand that was fundamentally literalist and non metaphysical and which monopolised the period from the late sixties into the seventies. This anti-illusionist drive came to prominence with Minimalism, and it is with this group of artists, especially Carl Andre, who was one of his most important contacts, that Richard Long feels the most affinity - despite the Minimalist use of industrial material that was in stark contrast with Long’s preference for natural materials. It is Long’s gallery pieces that are most like Andre’s in their use of prefabricated elements (quarried stone) that hug the floor and which are created by aligning similar shaped stones to create a greater geometric whole. Like Andre’s floor pieces Richard Long’s are essentially democratic. There is no hierarchy. There is likewise in both an emphasis on real space and real time – the time to walk on one of Andre’s floor pieces and the time it takes to walk round one of Richard Long’s circles of stones.
Aesthetically Richard Long’s art practice is situated at the cusp of these developments. It encompasses Land Art - he would say landscape for he sees himself as a landscape artist - and by extension Body Art. For Long takes as his measure not only the number of miles he covers by day and/or by night but the natural forces that exert their influence on him as he interacts with a particular landscape. While stipulating that it is no longer the subjective transcription of this external world that engages him Richard Long remains staunchly connected to his observable environments, bringing into play processes, materials and techniques such as photography, cartography, texts and other time based procedures that were relatively new to sculpture in the sixties. Conspicuous by its absence, however, is video since this would have reduced to Performance Art what was originally conceived as a virtually invisible gesture.
Richard Long, A Line in Scotland, 1981. Photo: © the artist, courtesy of Tate Britain.
Conceptual work of this period had the tendency to prioritise the intellectual aspects of art making by emphasising processes and procedures based on analytic self-scrutiny. Long’s work, while starting out as a series of preconceived ideas initiated around task and time based projects that usually take the form of a walk (though there are instances of bike rides) invariably oversteps this limit as the walks are incorporated into larger journeys. His maps and drawings both convey the spatial reach of the journey and impart an intimate sense of place. The normally black and white photographs represent the moment the walk becomes a stopping place on a longer journey taken, and the point at which this part of the journey becomes identifiable as an art work. The walk’s parameters while essentially random are at the same time constructed around a self-appointed task or ritual; throwing stones, carrying them to predetermined venues, or picking them up and arranging them as formal geometric shapes in the landscape which he describes as “abstract art laid down in the real spaces of the world.”
The texts, too, tell the story of Richard Long’s walk/work in the landscape. In this case language becomes the means of transposing information regarding the external world; through his use of place names and other seemingly random experiential details Long encourages the viewer to take an imaginative leap. Reading Long’s texts, we can each create our own work of art through the poetic density of words that remains embedded in image and metaphor. To an important degree this belies the famed simplicity of his work and confirms metaphor’s central position as the joining of the particular and the universal. As he explains:
My work has become a simple metaphor of life. A figure walking down his road, making his mark.
It is an affirmation of my human scale and senses: how far I walk. What stones I pick up, my particular experiences. Nature has more effect on me than I on it. I am content with the vocabulary of universal
and common meanings; walking, placing stones, sticks, water, circles, lines, days, nights, roads.
From an art historical perspective this modesty is in keeping with a whole generation’s resolve to add as little as possible to the existing art world; its aim to dematerialise rather than materialise. Photography and language were therefore favoured art practices. From the late sixties into the seventies the photographic image, which seemed to delete the presence of an authorial signature (e.g., the artist’s brushstroke as an index of artistic genius and virtuosity) monopolised the art scene. Artists such as Gerhard Richter and Andy Warhol persuaded themselves that the photographic image was purely objective, had little to do with style or composition and therefore obviated personal judgement. Long may have sympathised with this aesthetic credo based on the de-skilling of the artist. Nevertheless even the purely documentary aspects of his work retain a subjective edge and partake of his personal experience. For this reason much has been made of his continued attachment to Bristol and its environs. Content will out. It underpins his artistic production. The conceptual aspects with which he tends to identify himself artistically, constitute the tools that he uses and do not have priority over content as they do for many other conceptual artists; his feelings for the landscape do. True, landscape can be equated with a type of readymade. But Long’s work notably lacks that Duchampian element of irony that we have come to expect in the work of artists of this last half-century. For this reason it is not surprising that some commentators have remarked on a certain zen like quality or read into his work, possibly mistakenly, an enduring element of British romanticism. Long rejects these interpretations but there is a strong whiff of romanticism in the image of the solitary artist in communion with nature. Moreover his texts, in their condensation and terseness, do operate in like manner to the haiku. Words on the wall transform into images. Just examine what happens in his wall text Transference that chronicles parallel walks, one a three-day walk on Dartmoor, the other a seven day walk in Japan; exactly the same catalogue of words for both elicits a different set of images. If that is what conceptual means then Long is correct in seeing himself as a conceptual artist.
These wall texts, with their minimalist type settings--Long uses a very plain sans serif font-- and their lack of psychological or emotional content, may aim at objectivity, but they are no more objective than the photographs documenting journeys in desert and tundra, mostly tree-less places, which have inspired his unobtrusive, almost invisible interaction with the environment, the artist gently touching the landscape. The photos are certainly not the mere documents he may have originally intended them to be. They purposefully create an image that has been artistically created in the dark room. They seem staged so that what little evidence there is of Long’s presence at the site is effaced. Long has been at pains to declare “I like the idea of using the land without possessing it.” Unlike his US contemporaries, Land Artists such as Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, he does not undertake industrial occupancy of the land, nor like Christo get involved with land right issues and planning procedures. Instead he walks or sometimes bikes in national parks, taking the minimum of requirements –the rucksack glimpsed in a photo- mostly alone, but sometimes in the company of his fellow artist Land Artist Hamish Fulton.
His real (in time and space) canvas is non-urbanised nature, nature virtually untouched by civilisation. He literally draws on to the face of nature, and, like early man must have done or the child in all of us, makes his mark on the surface of the earth, scuffs a pathway, erects a line or a circular mound of stones or of driftwood, or paints with mud knowing full well that nature will reclaim what is hers, for as he says, “These works are made of the place, they are a rearrangement of it and in time will be reabsorbed by it. I hope to make work for the land, not against it.” But equally important for Long is the itinerary itself; the walk that becomes a ritual or the ritual that is the walk. This is the area circumscribed by conceptual procedures, procedures, however, which do not rule out subjectivity. Long’s vision remains personal. Randomness is factored in by designating a geometric or linear pattern that determines the walk, e.g. a walk of 4 hours and 4 circles, each a part of a greater circle - each hour presumably walking at a different rate to correlate time and space. To this extent Long, remains a conceptual artist, though the definition of “conceptual” is beginning to feel strained. What he has done is to replace the traditional three-dimensional studio-based sculptural object with a variety of two-dimensional documentary materials that include maps, drawings, texts, and photographs, which allow him to encompass a far wider area in real time and in real space, his real time and space but not ours.
As pointed out earlier this anti-illusionism was very important for artists of Long’s generation inasmuch as it created an ever more expansive ground for sculpture. In Snowball Track, his very first line piece, this was no more than a track made by rolling a snowball on the ground which was then photographed. But the line can just as well remain invisible save for its inscription, visually on a map or non-visually through a wall or book text. The latter effectively enumerates significant events and sightings that significantly include all the senses. The visual, olfactory, and auditory are all equally evocative distillations of a particular experience evinced by a sense of place.
Smithson and Heizer tended to document their projects in order to provide an analytic explanation of their artistic procedures that further dismantled the material constraints of traditional sculpture and allowed them ever-greater freedom. Long’s artistic practice is more open-ended and democratic. For this reason his publications are placed on an equal footing with his gallery pieces. As he has said, “The work is not about possession, so to say ‘to know it is to possess it’ is not quite right. But it’s like people can know a fact of life, that knowledge is common to everyone, no one actually possesses it on their own.” Long equates knowledge as much with the perceptive body as with the intellect. Though originally conceived as an idea, it is with the body that a work is made. Pounding feet make a pathway; hands move stones from one location to another or create geometric forms in far away places that will hardly elicit a comment from a passer by. Crucially, his texts emphasise the degree to which his body is dependent on the forces of gravity, on the elements, sun, wind or rain, cloud or cloudless skies, all of which determine what can or cannot be made or photographed. Contingency rules. Consequently, Long has insisted that he neither encourages nor expects art hungry visitors to make pilgrimages to these secluded sites, which in any case may no longer exist. His photographic documentation remains purposefully non-specific. On the other hand, judging from conversations overheard, his early maps of home territory near Bristol visibly encourage enthusiastic exhibition viewers to discuss the feasibility of his routes or plan to retrace his steps.
This is nevertheless a quiet exhibition. The majority of viewers seem caught up in a contemplative mood which does not quite tally with the artist’s own view of his practice as conceptual. Yet this is how Long wants to be recognised, rather than as an active ecological artist such as Beuys, a performance artist or a romantic artist. If the pursuit of a simple idea is conceptual then Long certainly deserves this appellation. The idea of walking a straight line is simple and Long has continued to expand, and some might say, to exploit it. This is his view on the matter:
One way to look at an artist’s work is the cumulative effect. So if I’d have made one straight walk once in my life in 1967, that might have been a very interesting work. But because I’ve made similar straight line walks or made other kinds of walks in different landscapes all over the world for the next 30 years that gives it another meaning.
Long sees himself as practical, pragmatic and level-headed and rejects the suggestion that his work is in any way transcendent or metaphysical. But the very fact that the exhibition opens with the two I Ching hexagrams representing Heaven and Earth belies this disavowal and reveals a deeper sensibility that encompasses an understanding of relativity and of the universe as cosmos that operates on many levels in our lives and in the lives of all living things, inanimate as well as animate. This need not be mystic or esoteric. On a subatomic level there are forces that determine order and chaos, order that emerges from chaos and vice-versa - an acknowledgement of the new physics which often coasts close to perennial spiritual ideas and allows a sense of the sacred a space in the natural world. This is the physical world in which Long operates as Homo Faber. But his main aim is to limit the degradation done to things that constitute the material world. Smithson, on the other hand, recognised violence as inevitable and his philosophy was therefore pessimistic. Long’s is optimistic, even celebratory. He achieves a sense of balance opposing the ‘butterfly with a life span of one month’ with ‘granite 350 million years old’ (Dartmoor Time) He can still say, “I think art is a very moral activity; it doesn’t threaten people. It doesn’t use people. It sort of humanises us, I hope.” Art has as its aim to reconcile the moral with the aesthetic. Just as we need to know that Richard Long has walked the walk, not just conceptualised it, this remains an article of faith. The exhibition somehow convinces us that he has.
All quotations from Richard Long. Selected Statements and Interviews, Haunch of Venison, London, 2007.
The exhibition Richard Long: Heaven and Earth was at the Tate Britain, London, from 3 June – 6 September 2009. For more information, visit www.tate.org.uk.
© Anna Leung 2009
Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-retired from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking occasional informal groups to current art exhibitions.