Setting off alone along the now familiar route down Henderson Row past a silent Academy, now in break, I savored a sense of purposefulness and anticipated my visit to the Richard Long show at the NGS Modern Galleries, their major exhibition of the year, open for the Festival, and an important one for Long as well. He hasn’t had an exhibition of this size in Britain in over fifteen years. I also relished another walk along the Water of Leith. Crossing unnecessarily over to elegant and brightly sunlit Dean Terrace, I crossed back at the bridge and descended into the path just before St. Bernard’s Well, a sulfurous source discovered in the mid-eighteenth century and decorously enclosed in a pump house designed by Alexander Naismyth, following the circular design of the Temple of the Sibyl at Tivoli, a favorite destination on the Grand Tour. A statue of Hygieia stands within ten Tuscan columns, a sober northern interpretation of the original’s Corinthian order.
Following the path further, at first shrouded in foliage like the Well, then entering more open spaces with grand views like Telford’s Dean Bridge, and intimate, hidden spaces opening out to no more than a narrow stretch of the water, the millstones commemorating the many flour mills that once stood along it, even a curious tent, someone had set up in their garden, only a little larger than the one Long takes with him on his more remote walks. I was relieved to learn that Long, when he walks on home ground, stays in pubs, enjoys good food, drinks with the locals, and writes postcards home to Mum, or at least he used to. His art is simple, but it’s not severe.
After that I began to think of my own walk as a gently ironic, but still respectful parody of the master’s work. Such a feeling is unavoidable under the circumstances, and it puts things in proportion. If one compares Long’s work to that of anyone else who works in a similar spirit, his emerges as the simplest, most straightforward, and honest, free from any grandstanding or preaching. His work, whether it is a stone circle or a mud drawing has an inevitable quality, as if it were an excrescence of nature, or the work of ancient men who lived closer to nature and the wild.
The approach to the museum leads the visitor around Jencks’ earthform, a work which is conceptual in a way Long’s is not. Both are imbued with elegance, but of a very different sort. Jencks’ elegance is a product of style, while Long’s grows out of the simplicity of his physical effort. New to the museum, I had no idea of the size of the exhibition I was about to enter, or of what particular path it would follow. [For highlights, click here.] As I discovered, it didn’t quite follow the conceptual schemes museums usually impose on their material. In this, it’s impossible for the visitor to lose track of where he is, but, remember, Thoreau thought it a wonderful blessing to get lost in the woods on a snowy night and a test of character to enjoy it. Walking through the exhibition, a collaboration of the curators with the artist, paralleled to some degree, I believe, Long’s own experience in his work. Unlike Thoreau, who believed the art of walking was best carried out by an unplanned “saunter,” preferably westwards, Long’s are controlled, if not by plan, by time, or natural circumstances like the availability of water in the desert. Also, Long is happy to head eastwards, southwards, in any direction, weaving a salutary net around the globe.
It is significant that Long, who has gone so far in abandoning the traditional materials and modalities of western art, keeps the Principle of All Principles at the center of his work, that is, line. Beginning with his earliest well-known work, his Line Made by Walking of 1967, recorded in a photograph, line remains essential to his work, whether straight or a circle, whether formed by walking, dripping, marking with hands or fingertips, or kicking stones. In this way the core of his work is purely classical.
There is only the vaguest secondary hint of chronology in the installation. The exhibition begins with Avon mud drawings extending over the past fifteen years or so, some very recent. Contemplating these in related groups, we are introduced to the exhibition through the closest Long ever gets to traditional scale and presentation, while their elegance and inevitability—produced through the role of chance in the mud pouring down the support, his abstention as an artist from total control. In the side galleries off to the left, there are photographs he has taken on his walks or as records of specific works. Some of these represent earlier moments in his career, but they hang in the company of more recent work. In the midst of the bare, seemingly casual simplicity of much of this work, Circle in Africa, Mulanje Mountain of 1978, stood out with its almost frightening Gothic wildness.
Turning right into the main axis of the building, the series of works made specifically for the exhibition, with mud from the Firth of Forth splattered, smeared, and dripped on the gallery walls. The exhibition closed on October 21st, and these works no longer exist. Enormous in scale, these show the interplay between the action of the flowing mud with Long’s hands, following overall a preconceived structure, an arc recalling the Firth of Forth Bridge, or the zigurrat shape of Cairngorm Line. An analysis of what this work implies about line and drawing would go far beyond the scope of this review.
On walls facing these there are works Long has made (beginning in 2000) with found objects, crudely decorated wooden items from Africa, tent pegs or a school slate, or a discarded piece of metal. As in his works in the field, his expressive intervention is light, no more than fingerprint drawings. The objects remain always easily identifiable as what they were in use.
In Room 8, approximately halfway through the exhibition, we find Long’s earliest cut slate work, Stone Line, 1980. Here his method developed directly from his way of making lines on the ground with branches or stones during his walks. Beside the cool, but humane elegance of this indoor work, the tawny surfaces of Macduff Circle, 2002 (installed near the Dean Gallery, where it stands out against the surrounding classical architecture), seem almost sumptuous. In the garden behind the Gallery of Modern Art Long created Stone Cross specifically for the exhibition. A work in high relief, jutting jagged edges of his preferred Delabole slate in all directions, and potentially reflective surfaces to the play of light, it fills the lawn almost to bursting with its angular gesture. Long’s work is not always serene. Nor is it always static, as is clear through the effect of the changing light on the slate.
The exhibition materials quote Long saying, “A walk is a line of footsteps, a sculpture is a line of stones. They’re interchangeable and complementary. Through the rhythms of walking, sleeping, walking, sleeping, I can understand better the rhythms of nature.” In the following galleries the works are closely linked to the cycles of nature, tides, celestial movements, the rising and setting of the sun. Long recorded many of his walks, usually in bare form, in simple, but monumental textworks. This allows him to specify the element of time, as well as natural occurrences.
He brings this into purely visual expression in works like Midsummer’s Day Circle, made for the exhibition directly on the gallery wall. About eight feet in diameter and imitating the form of the sun, moon, and earth, it was made on June 21,the summer solstice, with Firth of Forth mud.
It is now forty years since A Line Made by Walking. Long has followed this path steadily all the while, retaining most of the forms and scenarios which gestated early in his career. Occasionally something new will appear in an unobtrusive way, like his work with found objects and cruciform designs, and he continues to develop those along with the others. Over this time he has avoided any sort of ideological stance, overt political engagement, or supporting credo which might tempt him to preach. His walking and his gentle manipulation of natural materials originated in his walks with his father as a boy, over the countryside surrounding his native Bristol, where he still lives.
Over these forty years, especially in the latter part of them, the relationship of artists and the public to the environment has of necessity acquired an urgency which has made a political response necessary. Today, practical objectives and action are unavoidable. Also, there are many other earth artists, and many other walking artists, including myself, for a few odd moments on my way to and from the Gallery. This has interesting implications about the artistic decision to adopt an everyday physical action common to all as a medium. We all walk, though not all of us walk in nature, and some of us gather stones, branches and the like. I have said that line is the basic element of Long’s art. In a way the use of line is a basic human behavior as well, although it has been pushed beneath the surface for most of us. Drawing has acquired, and most likely has always had, the aura of a skill. Human visual understanding imposes certain conventions on graphic expression, which requires training and creates a specialized caste of artists. (This is true in spite of the eloquence of graffiti through the ages.) Using with consummate skill the methods of the unskilled—fingerprints, handprints, dripping, relying on fluid dynamics and gravity, smearing, lifting and placing, etc.—Long, both deceptively and honestly, produces work which is both supremely elegant and viscerally engaging.
Environmental issues were not in the forefront of my thoughts as I emerged from the exhibition, late for an appointment. I was on other hand immersed in my immediate environment. I was using my eyes more acutely. Walking home, my experience of my surroundings was heightened. And, like Long, I had a camera with me—another extremely interesting method by which he negates traditional draftsmanship while finding his own way to use line through that medium. The experience of Long’s art—and a visit to a comprehensive exhibition of this sort is infinitely more valuable than a single work folded into a mixed collection—of necessity develops one’s relation to the earth in a salutary direction. Long leaves us free to do with it what we will, whether it is a temptation to dip into the work of other practitioners, like Andy Goldsworthy, Hamish Fulton, or Marko Pogacnik, political action, or simply the private enjoyment of our own perambulations. A particularly fine example is Dougie Mathieson, who, without calling himself an artist, possesses an unerring sense of place for the environs of Edinburgh and the Pentland Hills, which he documents in his straightforward, extremely well-made photographs. Each weekend Dougie goes for a walk with his wife, which he documents right aftward by posting a group of his photos to Picasa.
The point is that art, without surrendering to overtly political modes of expression, which dilutes the artistic, except in very few cases, can, through the aesthetic experience they create, and the sense of participation which comes with it, move the viewer’s thoughts and actions in the right direction. Art can renew awareness. For example, as must be all too obvious, I’ve been haunted by Thoreau in recent months. His ideas have come up in various communications with friends and family, it’s true, but above all I had the privilege of hearing John Cage’s Lecture on the Weather last September, in which “12 speaker-vocalists (or instrumentalists), preferably American men who have become Canadian citizens” recite texts from Walden and “Civil Disobedience.” This work is not for everyone. There are certainly enough people who set their moral compasses with Bob Dylan, or Morrissey, or their favorite Christian country band, but artists like John Cage andChristian Wolff have consciously crafted a subtler expression of the balance between art and politics. One blogger castigated him for his indifference to theory and his preference for detective novels over Wordsworth. But Long’s psyche is invested entirely in in the reality of the walk and the beauty and power of what he finds in nature. We can easily exonerate Long for turning his back on explicit messages and other intellectual constructs.
The NGS have issued a catalogue by Patrick Elliott, produced, like the exhibition in collaboration with the artist. It is intended to function as a work of art in itself. In fact it goes beyond the work that was actually displayed in the galleries. This is most definitely a must-have, and the NGS are to be commended for keeping it to a reasonable cost (£12.95). Also, Long’s dealer, The Haunch of Venison, have published an important edition of his interviews and statements: Richard Long: Selected Statements & Interviews, edited by Ben Tufnell (£15).
See now Giselle Barcia’s review of Richard Long, Heaven and Earth, at the Tate Britain.