A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I remember the first time I encountered the work of Richard Long. I was on holiday, visiting Tate St Ives for the first time. We walked through the front door to find that someone had been flinging mud at the curved wall of the entrance hall. It made the wall look so beautiful and harmonious that it took my breath away. Richard Long was exhibiting there, and elsewhere in the gallery he had been writing on the walls, and making stone circles on the floor. There was something about the imagination and visual sense of this artist that I really responded to, and that was just from the transient physical traces that his art had left in a small gallery. Since then, I have been a devoted admirer of his work (euphemism for ‘besotted fan’).
There is much more to Richard Long’s work than that. When an exhibition of his work is mounted, nothing is permanent. Everything we see is a simulacrum of his ideas and response to the landscape, and will disappear once the show is over. He is a landscape artist, but not one who leaves a permanent structure on the ground; his works of art are created by walking over it and leaving ephemeral traces as he goes, then recording them. The expression of his work of art may be the photo he takes of it, or something he brings back from it, or a piece of text carefully describing it on a gallery wall or in a book.
So we might be in the realm of conceptual art – often dismissed as the ultimate take-it-or-leave-it art of our age. Anyone can have the ideas he has, the story goes: pick up stones and make a circle or a line of them, or walk a line in a grassy field, or plan a walk, walk it, and make a statement on a wall that it has been made. Anyone could, and yet Long’s work is visually unmistakeable and in itself beautiful to behold, spacious and sublime. It is also uniquely concrete, in his chosen materials such as stone, found wood, Avon river mud. His style has evolved glacially – one stricture is that what he does was fresh new once, but isn’t now. It is not bold or shocking, and, apart from hand prints and the marks of his sweeping fingers in the mud murals, the human form is absent from the end result. He records the world at its wildest and emptiest.
A few pieces have a permanent home, however his element is the temporary show where a cumulation of his sculptures, photographs and text pieces can do their work. Which is why I travelled from London to Bristol on a horrible rainy day to catch his latest, Time And Space, at the Arnolfini, a show that featured some new and some revisited works of his as a sort of gift to his home city, the source of his artistic ideas and the starting point for many of his works.
The Arnolfini Gallery is part of Bristol’s revitalised waterfront, a massive former warehouse turned into an elegant gallery of large and small cubes. Long’s work barely fits into it – one slate piece takes up the whole of the largest space. Otherwise, it was a mixture of old (reconstructed), new and revisited pieces. Old walks were ‘sampled’ – walked anew, and the similarities and differences documented in the resulting text pieces. The older walks are documented in their texts on the wall with rigorous precision: a walk across Dartmoor, and what was seen at intervals on the way; a walk where everything coloured red was noted. Some walks have a mathematical basis – so many miles, so many hours or days, and the resulting text pieces record the interaction of intention and chance. Lately, the vocabulary of these text pieces has expanded to include more poetic expression of feelings as well as material observations, which brings Long closer to a fuzzy boundary between visual art and literature.
Why do I love to look at these pieces? I love Long’s ability to synthesise order with randomness. His stone and wood sculptures are made up of roughly shaped pieces within the confines of a line – a perfect circle or oval or rectangle. His mud murals blur these serene lines and curves with drips and rills. His text pieces are to me perhaps the most beautiful – I certainly seem to spend most time standing in front of them. I am reading the words, but I am also taking in the beautiful arrangement of them, the choice of font (Gill Sans), the space between the lines, and the words, and the letters in the words. My mind is supplying the visuals and tracing the walk in my imagination. Sometimes there is a photograph to record an episode in the walk – the placement of stones or the creation of a ‘line made by walking’ (the title of his breakthrough piece). The mud murals (my first introduction to Long) are rhythmic and sweeping, again combining perfect lines and curves with randomness.
The book accompanying this exhibition is more than a catalogue – it is a survey of his recent work, and an accessible introduction to his work in my view. It is copiously illustrated, and has essays on his work, and some of his own words in a speech and an interview. Everything about Long is of a stylistic piece, and the illustration of the cover above gives an idea of his photography and use of text.
It was the wettest day imaginable, and I missed out on a proper visit to Bristol, but I was so pleased to catch this exhibition in Long’s native city.
Richard Long: Time And Space. Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther Konig, 2015. 160pp
The photo of Long’s work at the Hepworth Wakefield is reproduced here under a Creative Commons licence. The photo of the text piece is my own.