by Sue Hubbard
It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.
Since early Christianity pilgrimages have been made to the Holy Land, to Rome, to Lourdes and Canterbury, by walking on foot. Buddhists, understanding that a journey of a thousand miles starts with one step, walk in mindfulness. The writer, Bruce Chatwin, wrote in his celebrated book, The Songlines, that “… a Bushman child will be carried a distance of 4,900 miles before he begins to walk on his own. Since, during this rhythmic phase, he will be forever naming the contents of his territory, it is impossible he will not become a poet”. According to Aboriginal legend, the totemic ancestors – among them the great kangaroo and dream-snake – were first sung into existence, as was every feature of the natural world, as ancient Bushmen walked across the Australian continent.
The British artist Richard Long also walks. Other artists paint, sculpt or make installations but Long walks and as he does so he notices and records the minutiae of the landscape. Sometimes he stops to create interventions using the raw materials – stones and driftwood – found along the way as a means of articulating ideas about time and space. Through the act of walking connections are made to rivers and mountains, deserts and clouds, sky and ground. He touches the earth lightly, rarely re-tracing his steps. His interventions are tactful: a realignment of stones, a path trodden across scree, a track left in grass or water poured slowly onto rock. He has been walking for more than 40 years. His process is simple. He takes time, pays attention and records what he notices and hears, sometimes as text, sometimes in photographs so we, too, can share something of the experience. And although we might all engage with the natural world this way, the point is, we don't. He makes looking and seeing into art.
Long has chosen some remote and awesome places in which to make his work: the wilderness of Alaska, Mongolia and the rocky moonlike terrain of Norway. But it all started closer to home in 1964, when as a student at the West of England College of Art in his home town, Bristol, he went, one winter day, up to the Downs above Clifton Gorge and made a snowball, which he rolled through the snow to leave a track, then photographed. His work grows out of mid-20th century minimalism and American Land Art but it is quite unnecessary to know about this in order to appreciate what he does. There is a democracy about his practice that eschews any specialist knowledge of art history or culture. He is the Ralph Waldo Emerson de nos jours.
Now the Arnolfini Centre for Contemporary Art in Bristol has mounted a major new exhibition of Long's work as part of the programme to celebrate the city's year as European Green Capital. Much of the work has been shown before such as the numerous photographs and texts ‘mapping' his walks, The earliest dates from 1967, though there are three new pieces: a large sculpture made of Cornish slate in the shape of a cross laid across the gallery floor and fitted together with the skill and precision of a dry stone wall, and a wall ‘painting' made with mud collected from the river Avon, which makes reference in its fluid bodily repetitions to American Abstract Expressionism. Long considers these works, which he makes using his right hand dipped in wet mud, to be part of a continuing work in which water is a constant refrain. Working quickly the splashes and drips become integral to the piece, illustrating both the pull of gravity and the role of chance. For those unfamiliar with Richard Long's work this exhibition is a worthy introduction, yet somehow the space of the Arnolfini seems to curtail rather than open up the lyrisim and physicality of his work. There's a feeling, somehow, that it's trapped and crammed into the gallery and can't quite breathe, that it would make a run for the wilderness if it could. The third new piece, Boyhood Line, is situated outside the gallery, and traces a 170 metre path across The Downs in white limestone.
The walks Long embarks on are straightforward and usually centred around a geographical or topographical feature. He might walk, say, between the sources of the rivers Dart, Tamar and Exe. He told me when I met him in Bristol that, “A good work is the right thing in the right place at the right time”. He likes simple practicle, emotional, quiet, vigorous art. “I like to use the symmertry of patterns between time, place and time, between distance and time, between stones and distance, between time and stones. I like the simplicity of walking, the simplicity of stones. I like sensibility without technique”.
While at St. Martin's he was influenced by the now famous Destruction of Art Symposium of 1966 and was aware of Yoko Ono's performances with Fluxus. The legacy of the composer John Cage, whose work reflects an interest in Zen Buddhism and Taoism, can be seen in the heightened sensibility and simplicity of his work. It was around this time that he also became friends with Carl André with whom he shared a desire to reject metaphysical allusion in favour of direct physicality embedded in a sense of place. His is an art based on ideas which are then followed by a physical action that then becomes a record. It is also a measure of what it is to live in time, to be part of a physical universe and a prey to the forces of nature. In his walking art Long joins up that old Cartesian split between the corporeal and the mind. We are reminded that all journeys are experienced though our bodies, whether they are an exploration between two points on a map or our path from birth to death. He elevates walking, that most mundane mode of transport, to its rightful place as one of the most fundamental human activities that not only inspires creativity, evokes freedom and connects us back to nature but also quietens the troubled soul. In that sense his walks are pilgrimages for a secular age, when in all the rush and razzmatazz there is simply the movement of the walking body, the breath, the landscape, the 'now'.
Installation view of TIME AND SPACE by Richard Long
31 July – 15 November
Photo by Stuart Whipps
Photos 48 – 55 inclusive:
Installation view of Boyhood Line by Richard Long on The Downs, Bristol
Part of TIME AND SPACE at Arnolfini
31 July – 15 November