Making a beeline for Richard Long

Writing the other day about Rebecca Solnit’s history of walking, Wanderlust, I mentioned her discussion of the work of Richard Long, the land artist whose work has been dedicated to making ‘a new way of walking: walking as art’.  He began in 1967 by making what was then a radically new kind of work, A Line Made by Walking,created  by Long repeatedly walking a straight line in a field.  Since then, he has continued to develop this idea, presenting the walks as art in three forms: maps, photographs, or text works.  Each walk expresses a particular idea: so there have been walks in a straight line for a predetermined distance; walks between the sources of rivers; walks measured by tides, and walks delineated by stones dropped into a succession of rivers crossed.

Thinking about Long, I realised I had only a few days left to see the exhibition of his work that has been running all summer at the Hepworth gallery in Wakefield, with a linked exhibit at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.  So, I set a course and made a beeline (quite literally as it turned out) for Yorkshire and Richard Long.

At the Yorkshire Sculpture Park I learned that the Richard Long exhibit had been located at the most distant point in the park.  It seemed entirely appropriate that seeing an example of this artist’s work should require the effort of a modest walk. So follow me…

I set off down the hillside toward the lake.  I love the YSP, the sense of space and varied landscapes in this vast expanse of rolling parkland, and the surprise of unexpected encounters with sculptures as you crest a rise, turn a corner or enter a glade.  Currently there is a major exhibition of Joan Miro’s sculptures and other artworks, and the lawns are dotted with large bronze sculptures rarely seen outside his foundations in Barcelona and Palma de Mallorca, like Personnage, 1970 (below).  Personally, I can take or leave Miro’s forms; I suppose I just don’t get them.  It was interesting to browse the exhibits and read Miro’s comments on Catalan culture and art,  rooted in his deep sense of national identity, in the month when the Catalan Parliament has voted to call a referendum on Catalan independence.  But, like Laura Cummings in her review of last year’s Tate exhibition, Miro’s works don’t come across to me as political statements.

Walking on down the hillside I passed Jonathan Borofsky’s Molecule Man (below), aluminium gleaming in the sunlight that poured through the hundreds of holes in the sculpture that made it seem to float, light as air, giving form to the artist’s  idea that the molecule structure of humans is composed of little more than water and air.

Further down, I found Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz’s monumental Ten Seated Figures, which,  like most of her work, reflects her experience of war and political oppression.  Abakanowicz was born in an aristocratic Polish-Russian family on her parent’s estate in Poland. The Second World war broke out when she was nine years old.  The forces of Nazi Germany and then the Soviet Union swept through the land, followed by forty-five years of Soviet domination.  In her work headless human figures often appear identical on the surface but on closer inspection reveal individuality, a commentary on societies which repress individual creativity in favour of collective goals and values:

My work comes from the experience of crowds, injustice and aggression…

By way of a complete contrast, near the Camellia House and in a wooded glade I encountered two works by Sophie Ryder, the artist who first drew us to the YSP many years ago with our young daughter.  Crawling Lady Hare is a work behind after her exhibition here in 2008.  Manus and the Running Dogs is a much earlier work from 1987, which shares a similarity – a group of animals running -  to Crossing Place which we saw, again with our daughter, on the Forest of Dean sculpture trail in 1992. I love watching the faces – of children and adults alike – light up when they see a Ryder sculpture.

Emerging from the trees where leaves fell in all the colours of autumn – reds and yellows as bright as the Catalan colours of Miro’s painted sculptures back in the gallery – a cacophony of rooks or crows rose from the branches.  It’s a sound that, for some inexplicable reason, always makes my heart soar.

Where the parkland slopes down to the lake, I mingled with Barbara Hepworth’s Family of Man: a group work from 1970 that consists of nine bronze upright abstract forms arranged across the sloping lawn.  Each one is a simple, geometric shape, but Hepworth manages to imbue each figure with a distinctive personality. There are larger, more complex forms that seem to have distinctive  male personalities, while smaller figures seem more timid, children perhaps, scared of speaking out of turn.   This is a work that is best experienced outdoors, and the YSP have positioned it superbly here. As Hepworth once said:

All my sculpture comes out of landscape. No sculpture really lives until it goes back into landscape.

Down by the lake I saw a shed with a large reflective globe perched upon the roof .  Now, I’ve built two sheds this year on our allotment, so I was intrigued.  It turned out to be a recent work, Spiegelei, by Jem Finer, first made for the Tatton Park Biennial in 2010 and now resited here. According to the YSP’s interpretation:

‘visitors are invited into Spiegelei to experience a shift in reality, in which the world becomes inverted and sounds distorted, allowing a new and wonderful perspective on the familiar landscape of the Bretton Estate. This has been achieved through the construction of a 360-degree camera obscura using three lenses housed inside a sphere, angled to take full advantage of the views.

None of that worked for me, yet on a trip to Kent some time ago I enjoyed his Score for a Hole in the Ground located in a wood in the Stour Valley. A  seven metre high steel horn, like an old-fashioned gramophone, generates sound through rainfall.  And I have been captivated by the idea of his Artangel commission Longplayer, a 1000-year long musical composition  the longest non-repeating piece of music ever composed – that has been playing continuously since the first moments of the millennium, performed by computers around the world.

Then it was into the wood that surround the Lower Lake, walking a line to Richard Long.

Following the trail through the wood, every now and then I’d notice an object dangling from a tree branch, looking something like a garden bird house.  In fact, collectively they are an artwork that is also an ecological intervention.  The Bee Library comprises a collection of twenty-four bee-related books selected by Alec Finlay that were initially on display in the YSP Centre during springtime. Once read, each book was made into a nest for wild or ‘solitary’ bees in the grounds of the YSP.   Together the library now forms an installation on a walking route which I was now following around the Upper Lake.  Constructed from a book, bamboo, wire-netting and water-proofing, each nest offers shelter for solitary bees, whose numbers are in steep decline. New nests will be added in other places, building a global bee library. The Bee Poems are a collection of texts composed from a close reading of the books, published online.

I walked on, looking for Richard Long.  He has written:

A footpath is a place.

It also goes from place to place, from here to there, and back again.

Any place along it is a stopping place.

Its perceived length could depend on the speed of the traveller, or its steepness, or its difficulty.

Reversing direction does not reverse the travelling time.

A path can be followed, or crossed.

A path is practical; it takes the line of least resistance, or the easiest, or most direct, route.

Sometimes it can be the only line of access through an area.

Paths are shared by all who use them.

Each user could be on a different overall journey, and for a different reason.

A path is made by movement, by the accumulated footprints of its users.

Paths are maintained by repeated use, and would disappear without use.

The characteristics of a path depend upon the nature of the land, but the characteristics can be universal.

My path finally brought me to Red Slate Line, a 1986 work made by Richard Long from slate found at the border of Vermont and New York State, and relocated here at the YSP for the summer.  One strand of Long’s work is making sculptures in the landscape that are made by rearranging rocks and sticks into lines and circles without relocating them from the scene (the work is photographed, just as Andy Goldsworthy does with those works he creates that last fleetingly before they are washed or blown away, melt or decay).  Meanwhile, another branch of Richard Long’s work collects up rocks, sticks or other materials to lay out  those lines, circles or labyrinths on the gallery floor. In both cases, though, the landscape and the walk through it remains the primary focus.

Red Slate Line belongs to the second category – a gallery piece, now set down in a woodland setting, the shards of red slate arranged like a path leading down to the water’s edge.  Rebecca Solnit wrote that these lines and circles record Long’s walks in ‘a reductive geometry that evokes everything – cyclical and linear time, the finite and the infinite, roads and routines – and says nothing’ (by which she means that we, the viewers, are given very little information about the walk that inspired them:

In some ways, Long’s work resemble travel writing, but rather than tell us what he felt, what he ate, and other such details, his brief texts and uninhabited images leave most of the journey up to the viewer’s imagination .. to do a great deal of work, to interpret the ambiguous, imagine the unseen.  It gives is not a walk nor even the representation of a walk, only the idea of a walk, and an evocation of its location (the map) or one of its views (the photograph).  Formal and quantifiable aspects are emphasized: geometry, measurement, number, duration.

Richard Long: Line Made By Walking, 1967

Before visiting the YSP, I had spent some time at the Hepworth Gallery, just 15 minutes drive away in Wakefield.  There, a small exhibition of work by Richard Long is just drawing to a close. The exhibition presents Long as a key figure in the emergence of land art, but notes too, that Long was also associated with Arte Povera, which questioned the boundary between art and life through the use of everyday materials and spontaneous events.

Journeying from his home town of Bristol to London, whilst a student at Saint Martin’s School of Art, Long created A Line Made by Walking (1967, above) in a grass field in Wiltshire, by continually treading the same path. It’s now been acknowledged as a pioneering artwork, incorporating performance art, land art and sculpture. The work also introduced Long’s intention to consider walking as art, exploring relationships between time, distance, geography and measurement. Long developed this intention throughout the 1970s and 1980s, making works in increasingly challenging and remote terrains and documenting the walks as texts, maps and photographs, such as Walking a Line in Peru (1972) and Sahara Line (1988).  An important aspect of these works is the evidence of human activity that Long leaves as he walks, the trace of an encounter that is at the centre of the artist’s practice:

In the nature of things:
Art about mobility, lightness and freedom.
Simple creative acts of walking and marking
about place, locality, time, distance and
measurement.
Works using raw materials and my human
scale in the reality of landscapes.

Long’s sculptures occur either in the landscape, made along the way on a walk, or in the gallery, made as a response to a particular place. He works with natural materials such as sticks or slate to make sculptures and often uses mud or clay in his drawings and wall-works.  This exhibition contains works from across Long’s career. It includes early photographs of his sculptures in the landscape such as Line Made By Walking and England 1968 where two paths cross in a field full of daisies.

Richard Long: England, 1968

The works in this exhibition, although made at different  points in Long’s career, reflect the consistency of his approach, the same elements constant through the years:

My work has become a simple metaphor for 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 means: walking, placing, stones, sticks, water, circles, lines, days, nights, roads.

- Richard Long,1983

Other photographed works on display include A Line in Japan – Mount Fuji (1979), A Circle in Alaska (1977), made of driftwood gathered on the Arctic Circle on the shore of the Bering Strait, and Circle in Africa (1978).

Richard Long: A Line in Japan – Mount Fuji, 1979

Richard Long: A Circle in Alaska 1977

Richard Long: Circle in Africa, 1978

Circle in Africa depicts a circle made of burnt cactus branches on a rocky outcrop on Mulanje Mountain in Malawi.  Long has explained how the circumstances in which Circle in Africa came about:

I was going to make a circle of stones on a high mountain in Malawi and then, when I got there, I couldn’t find any stones because there was no ice and snow to break the rock up. So I kept the idea of a circle and changed the material to burnt cacti which were lying around, that had been burnt in lightning storms. … I am an opportunist; I just take advantage of the places and situations I find myself in.

Alongside these photographs there is an annotated OS map of an area of the Cairngorms  – Concentric Days, 1996 – with concentric circles superimposed, each representing a day and ‘a meandering walk within and to the edge of each circle’.  You look and you imagine.  There are two hand-made books – Nile (Pages of River Mud), 1990 and River Avon (1979) – both of which are assembled from papers dipped in the mud of those rivers.

In an adjoining room are two contrasting pieces – Somerset Willow Line (1980) constructed from willow twigs arranged in a large rectangle across the gallery floor, and, spelt out in large capitals across the length of one wall, one of his text works: A DAYS WALK ACROSS DARTMOOR FOLLOWING THE DRIFT OF THE CLOUDS.

Richard Long Somerset Willow Line and Dartmoor Walk

Richard Long Somerset Willow Line 1980

Another room brings together three more contrasting examples of Long’s work: Water Falls, a large piece like a painting created for this exhibition from paint overlain with scraped and scoured  china clay, along with floor pieces, Cornish Slate Ellipse and Blaenau Festiniog Circle, constructed from blocks of Welsh slate in an arrangement that reminded me strongly of pieces exhibited by David Nash at the YSP last year.

Richard Long: Water Falls 2012

Richard Long: Water Falls, Cornish Slate Ellipse and Blaenau Festiniog Circle

I’ll finish with that other great walker, Robert Macfarlane.  This is how he concluded an appreciation of Richard Long’s work he wrote for The Guardian:

I like his unpretentiousness. It’s probably what appeals to me most about Long and his work. He practises a kind of ritualised folk art. His circles, lines and crosses are radiantly symbolic, but also childishly simple; or, rather, they’re radiantly symbolic because they’re childishly simple. It’s for this reason that Long is ill-served by those interpreters who draw a cowl of Zennish mysticism over his sculptures, or who interpret his textworks (strings of words and phrases, often superimposed on to a photograph of the landscape that has been walked) as koan-like chants.[...]

No, Long is no magus. More of a high-end hobo. Among my favourite of his pieces is Walking Music, a textwork that records the songs that trundle through his mind as he walks 168 miles in six days across Ireland, the music keeping at bay the loneliness of the long-distance walker. Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Sinéad O’Connor singing “On Raglan Road”, Jimmie Rodgers’s “Waiting for a Train”, Róisín Dubh played on the pibroch …

Samuel Beckett – who, like Long, found much to meditate on and much to laugh at in the act of walking; and who, like Long, loved country lanes and bicycles, pebbles and circles – once observed that it is impossible to walk in a straight line, because of the curvature of the earth. There’s a great deal of Long in that remark. His art reminds us of the simple strangeness of the walked world, of the surprises and beauties that landscape can spring on the pedestrian. It’s good that Long is out there, knackering another pair of boots, singing Johnny Cash to himself as he walks the line.

River Po Line, Italy,2001

See also

7 thoughts on “Making a beeline for Richard Long

  1. Richard Long is one of my favourite artists. Since I no longer live in the UK I couldn’t see the exhibit, so thank you for your description of your path to see his work

    • Yes – I liked that, too. It seemed different to the other work of his that I knew, but later, in the shop, I copped a bargain: because it was the last week of the show, they were selling his latest book, Walking the Line, half-price, and in there it appears he’s been doing these ‘painted’ works for some time – swirls, circles or other or shapes formed from mud smeared on a gallery wall; sometimes circles or labyrinths of mud hand-prints.

  2. Thanks Gerry; I live in Wakefield and have visited the Hepworth exhibition a couple of times. Your photograph of the mud ‘Waterfall’ enabled me to see it differently though…I could see the ‘flattened’ mid-section, in perspective, and helped me to make sense of the whole piece. It’s great when you get to see something differently, isn’t it! Thanks.
    I saw Long’s exhibition in Edinburgh a few years ago; lots of his mud paintings; thumb prints; on many different surfaces. Very intimate, compared with the more usual large-scale work he normally creates. They felt very warm, and human. As well as showing the range of shades, tones, colours of different river muds. Specific geology. I did some research on Long (and Hepworth) when I wrote my M.A. dissertation 5 or 6 years ago. I explored landscape and spirituality, and art. The shapes used by Long, lines, spirals, and circles, are echoed in spiritual belief systems. I was linking things together. Cheers,
    Jan

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