Richard Long: walking as art (by Olga Norris)

Greetings! I’ve been a lurker and sometime commenter for a while, and decided to try the other side of the table. I work mostly with stitched textiles, which have been occupying me now for some 15 years, before which I worked in book publishing. I have always been interested in art. Some of you possibly know my blog: Threading thoughts

I thought that I would try to come up with a contribution to the Cafe at about this time every month.  Anyway, with apologies if I make a mess of the upload, here I go:

Line made by walking 1967

Line made by walking 1967

Today I visited the Richard Long Heaven and Earth exhibition at Tate Britain in London.   His work falls into the broad category of Land Art in that essentially he walks through landscape, making marks by using elements of that landscape such as rocks or earth, or by walking down the grass as in the image above, and then photographs his interventions.

He also performs prescribed walks such as 100 miles in 100 hours, or all the roads within a circle described around a specific point. For these walks he marks or draws outlines on maps, adds printed text, and frames them. Other works consist of words printed on paper, or reproduced on a wall, describing elements of the walk such as the sounds heard, sights passed, music listened to, etc.

Other gallery pieces consist of two-dimensional geometrically exact outlines on the floor filled with rocks from a specified place. The one below was installed on the accessible balcony roof of the gallery, and when I saw it I enjoyed the relationship it had with both building and surrounding landscape.

Slate Atlantic, Tate St Ives 2002

Slate Atlantic, Tate St Ives 2002

The other kind of work Richard Long makes is temporary mud-splashing on walls. He usually employs mud from the immediately local river for this – or mud from his own local river which is the Avon in South West England. I have seen this kind of work a few times, including in Nimes, France as shown here on Richard Long’s newsletter

My favourite piece of his is a permanent feature of a sculpture garden near my home, and which I visit fairly regularly. The piece is named the buzzard line, and follows on the ground the flight of a buzzard to one particular tree. It works particularly well because of the situation of the tree in the surrounding landscape. It sits at the top of the hillside overlooking a glorious bowl of a lush valley facing south. The buzzard has a fine view of prey from there. The line is made of heaped flint which is plentiful in this area and of course is known as the raw material for some of man’s earliest tools.

Tame buzzard line

Tame buzzard line

I find Richard Long’s work seductive, but I have wondered what there really is to it. I have found it difficult to engage fully with the body of work when only seeing elements here and there, and especially if with the work of other artists. I was pleased that this exhibition provided me with the opportunity to look hard and think about what he is doing.

Artist is such a broad description. Long is a performer with no audience present. Even his photographs record his having walked, or his having marked the walk. We have the evidence, but we have no witness. He is rather like those prehistoric folks who left their wall marks, their henges, their standing stones as enigmas for us.

He wants to declare himself as an artist and hence the gallery work.  In paraphrasing what was stated on one of the descriptive text panels in the exhibition: the evidence of the walks feeds our spirit, and the physical rocks and mud feed our imaginations – and I do find that the words are poetry.

Is this art literature made concrete? A room outside the exhibition contains many of Long’s artist’s books, and indeed walking through the galleries of work was rather like wandering through the pages of such. I am coincidentally reading Johanna Drucker’s excellent The Century of Artists’ Books and also thinking about the book form, so this examination of Long’s work is not too much of a diversion.

Is his work a personal journal which can be taken as a kind of manual for our own approach to the landscape around us?  Or is the fact that he shows us in his photographs landscapes that are untouched by human hand other than his own a kind of romantic arrogance and non-engagement with the reality of our exploitation of the earth?

I certainly want to think more about Long’s work, and also to explore the work of other Land Artists. I have come away with not only the exhibition catalogue, but also the Phaidon book on Land and Environmental Art.  I’m keen to broaden my thoughts to include Andy Goldsworthy, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Chris Drury, James Turrell about whose art I know a little.

7 Responses to “Richard Long: walking as art (by Olga Norris)”

  1. 1 Ava bailey July 21, 2009 at 10:29 am

    As a fan of richard long i say to anyone follow your dream even if it is as simple as richard longs. if you want to be an artist, be an artist if you realy want to. i belive he is an role model to everyone and is one of the best artists ive ever seen. such as heaven and earth a circle in alaska positive and negitive all pure genious. And if it wasn’t for him i wouldn’t have ever been so intrested in the art on paper and naturle enviorments

  2. 2 Olga June 28, 2009 at 8:00 am

    Marg, I so agree that seeing the potential is the great trick. Richard Long makes so many choices: where he will walk, how long the walk will be, what kind of walk it will be, will he make a mark on the walk – or will he make his marks in words or in stone, or on a map afterwards? I must admit to being intrigued by the processes of his choosing.

    I believe that we have to learn to look before we can see, and that yes, practising always improves the skill – although I reckon even the best always have room for further improvement. Not only is there ever more to see, but there are constantly new ways of looking. Never a dull moment!

  3. 3 Marg in Mirror, AB June 27, 2009 at 8:22 am

    I was drawn to this article by the title, “Walking as Art”. Being a student of Julia Cameron’s “Artist’s Way”, I tend more often to walk for reflection and inspiration, to “walk out” my art ideas so that I can return home and put them out into fabric, fibre and floss. I *do* take photos when I walk, but more often to interpret what I see in other media, rather than having the photo as the medium itself. My daughter, on the other hand, is a student of landscape photography, and would see quite different things in this work, I’m sure. This is in part because, as I understand it, the art in the photo is not simply ‘found’ art — i.e., the landscape as the Creator laid it down — but art created by Long and then photographed. It seems to me that ‘seeing’ the potential for a particular art-form (like a line of flint or a semi-circle of slate) in a setting requires a certain talent, which Long possesses. My water colour teacher insisted her students could *learn* to ‘see’ if they a) took the time; and b) practiced it…It is a skill I am still working on. When I view work such as Long’s, I am inspired to continue to work on it!

  4. 4 olganorris June 23, 2009 at 11:41 pm

    Thank you Clairan. There is an interesting view of the exhibition from a geologist in today’s Guardian newspaper:

  5. 5 clairan June 23, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    Well, I am not Rothkoed out by a long shot, but I found the Long work quite inspiring. Very reminiscent of Andy Goldsworth, whose work is superb. Thanks for a great post, Olga.

  6. 6 olganorris June 22, 2009 at 7:59 am

    Linda, first let me apologise for not adding my name at the beginning – now done.

    Yes, Long’s marks with mud are so evidently the mark not only of his hand, but of his enthusiastic whole self. I agree that it is an exhibition which sings, and I too find that it is occupying much of my thoughts.

    My confession is that I’m Rothko-d out. I have been a great fan, and travelled all over to see big exhibitions; but I have reached saturation point for now.

  7. 7 linda colsh June 22, 2009 at 12:28 am

    Thank you for this review. I went to see this show and the Turner-Rothko show at the same Tate Britain last week. The Turner-Rothko show was interesting, esp seeing the Seagram Rothkos in a new space with different lighting, but I came away from that show feeling that it was not “new to me” in that it didn’t leave me with many new avenues of thought to pursue and perhaps it had been “too easy”.

    But then I went over to the Long show and experienced that building “wow” as I walked the galleries. The first huge mud paintings grabbed my attention as forcefully as if the hand that was so visible in their making had reached out from the wall and pulled me up by the shirt. I was pulled along thereafter by the great variety in what was presented: much to absorb, ponder, think about. I am still thinking, not just about Long’s fascinating work and approach, but also about my own work. That’s the mark of IMO a really great exhibition.

    I couldn’t easily find who wrote the review here on RRC, but thank you, thank you. It is a lovely way to begin a day to be brought back to revisit the Long exhibition. –linda colsh

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