Richard Long, Heaven and Earth, at the Tate Britain, 3 June – 6 September 2009
A curious map hangs in the second room of Heaven and Earth, the new Richard Long exhibit at the Tate Britain in London, which opened on June 3. From afar, the map of Dartmoor Forest in southwest England resembles strategic battle map, with four concentric circles drawn atop a specific area, perhaps suggesting a target. The map, however, exists as a simple record, a history, of a walk Richard Long took thirty-seven years ago. “A Walk of Four Hours and Four Circles, England, 1972,” the caption reads. Each of the circles on the map represents Long’s self-imposed paths for his walk and do not necessarily symbolize dominion.
Most of Long’s work emerges from this process: a meditative walk through remote areas as close as his native Britain or as far as Africa or South America. In these areas, he walks for a pre-established distance, path, or time. During these marches, he rearranges the natural materials he encounters—rocks, stones, sticks—into geometrical forms. These rearrangements are Long’s sculptures. At times he brings these materials into the space of museums, but usually they remain in their natural site, unknown to any other passerby that they are artworks. He photographs the finished product and continues the walk. Long’s connection to the land determines the scale and shape of his creations. Long’s art is not about conquering these areas. “It’s like a dialogue,” Long affirmed in an interview, between the artist and his medium, nature.
Curating a Richard Long show, then, presents an inherent challenge: his art, so deeply rooted in nature, must be brought into the contained, synthetic environment of the museum. As an added challenge, the Tate Britain exhibit features more than 70 works of differing media, including photographic and textual works, maps of his walks, six sculptures, and four new large-scale mud murals. Despite this multiplicity of media, certain themes consistently emerge in Long’s work, particularly an interplay between order and chaos—a relationship that Clarrie Wallis, curator of the exhibit, echoes in the museum’s presentation of Long’s work.
The third and central room of the exhibition features photographs of Long’s sculptures that stand in remote areas. These photographs are thematically ordered, revealing a repeated interest in the archetypal forms: lines, circles, crosses. Here, the viewer can see the artist’s more famous works, such as his Circle and Line series of the late 1970s and early 1980s, in a single space, each one displaying his arrangement of nature into organized shapes. As photographs they permanently consecrate Long’s ephemeral work. Along theses lines, they also flatten the three dimensionality of Long’s work. Finally and most irrevocably, the photos are decontextualized with the natural setting replaced with the sterility of the whitewashed museum walls. They exist simply as silent witnesses to the superficial aspects of Long’s work.
As if to partially compensate that limitation, the room that follows contains six floor sculptures created within the space of the museum. Long organized dozens of rocks into circular and ovular arrangements—divided by kind into slate, flint, and basalt. Each one is dynamic, bright, and interesting. Long clearly allows the museum floor to be visible in between the rocks for about three of the sculptures, as if underscoring the strangeness of these works in the museum space. Additionally, red lines demarcating the shape of the sculptures are readily left visible. These sculptures, then, blur the distinction between conversing with nature and dominating it. The materials have been removed from their original setting, reordered and presented for a museum setting, where the hawk-like viewer may circle around and stare at these low-set target objects.
Long’s murals are perhaps most interesting for their marriage of these two disparate themes: Long’s work does not “conquer” nature but, rather, orders it. A stunning example lies in the opening mural of the exhibition. The bright orange mural on the wall immediately behind the small threshold to the Long show totally fills the space and introduces the viewer to Long’s visual rhetoric. Once one passes through the threshold, the vast scale of the mural is evident. Long applied Vallauris clay (not paint) directly on the entire expanse of museum wall. His strokes are even, and methodical, creating a fractal-like effect. He even paints over the electrical sockets near the floor for the sake of uniformity. Only the nearby vents, apparently, were spared the splattering from Long’s process. The mural represents at once chaos and order: the gestural strokes extending to the edge of the museum floor juxtapose the regularity of the work as a whole.
The eponymous Heaven and Earth murals particularly link the museum-wall murals prepared for this exhibition to the rest of Long’s oeuvre. Here, he employs he cross icon as his strict boundary and ordering device. Using River Avon mud, Long intriguingly conveys these murals in the same black and white muted palette as the black and white photographs used to depict his ephemeral nature sculptures. The murals, in fact, with their strict division of parts, like floor plans—much like the ones handed out at the entrance of a museum exhibit. With Heaven and Earth Long again engages in a visual ordering of the chaotic that reflects the ongoing ordering of art in a museum.
The most compelling aspect of Long at the Tate Britain is the connection between Long’s walks and those of the museum-goer. Like the walk that Long embarks on when creating each one of his works, the museum-goer reenacts these walks within the space of the museum. As Long imposes predetermined distances and time limits for his walks, the curator imposes a particular visual path for the viewer. As Long orders nature through his art, the museum presents the impossible views from the Andes to the Himalayas in one space. The museum provides an established order, so that the viewer does not get lost within the chaotic richness of Long’s work.
See also Michael Miller’s review of Richard Long: Walking and Marking, National Galleries of Scotland,
30 June to 21 October 2007