Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Line Made by Walking

Earlier this week we took a day off work and went to see the new Richard Long exhibition at Tate Britain, Heaven and Earth. I was prepared to be a bit disappointed, wondering what he'd been doing in the years since 'Walking in Circles', the last big Richard Long retrospective in 1991. Since the rise of the young British artists, Long's walks have seemed somewhat out of step with the times. In recent years it has almost seemed as if Hamish Fulton (who had a big solo show at Tate Britain and a mural in the Tate Modern cafe) was coming to overshadow Richard Long - the walking land artist equivalent of Manchester City finishing above Manchester United... I'm also not sure how much he has benefited from the growing interest in outdoor, green pursuits. Long doesn't document global warming, reclaim poisoned sites or dramatise ecological issues and, as I've discussed here before, his approach to walking in distant wilderness areas can be criticised.

Well, regardless of what Long has done recently, you can't help being struck in this exhibition by the range and creativity in his early work...
  • A Ten Mile Walk 1968 - map with route
  • A Line in Ireland 1974 - sculpture: in situ
  • Stone Line 1980 - sculpture: on the gallery floor
  • River Avon Mud Circle 1982 - mud wall painting
  • A Walk of the Same Length as the River Avon 1977 - photo/text conceptual walk
  • Mountains to Mountains 1980 - text: instructions
  • A Straight Northward Walk Across Dartmoor 1979 - text: impressions
  • From Along a Riverbank 1971 - a pamphlet
  • A Hundred Stones 1977 - a book
  • Campfire Ash 1972 - a trace of the journey
These are ten examples from the fifteen years that began with A Line Made by Walking (1967), a work that seems increasingly important with the passing years. (Its status as a classic was confirmed for me when I saw Sinisa Mitrovic urban take on it, Lines Made By Walking (2003), a film in which a woman walks against the ceaseless flow of commuters on London Bridge one morning).

But what of Long's work over the last twenty years? Like Hamish Fulton, he has been making larger work with colour photographs and bolder messages, but they do not seem loud or overstated. He still does his stone circles, his text works describing simple walk-generating procedures, and his photographs of minimal grey rock piles (which can make Andy Goldsworthy's sculptures look unnecessarily laborious). Long is treading a familiar path, but the landscape is constantly changing and I found myself admiring many of these recent works as much as his older ones. Here, to conclude, are some extracts from Jonathan Jones' highly complimentary review in The Guardian:
'Richard Long's day has come, and the controlled note of triumph in his new Tate Britain exhibition, Heaven and Earth, suggests he knows it.... An exhibition by an artist of his vintage ought by rights to be a yawn - yet another retrospective by yet another pillar of the establishment. But this is more like the birth of a new artist than the affirmation of an old one...
Long takes us back to the origins and innocence of conceptual art. The reason so much British art of the last 15 years has disappointed is not that it is "conceptual" - that it treats ideas as forms - but that so much of it is weakly conceived: pastiche conceptualism. Encountering Long again is like a great blast of fresh Dartmoor air. This is a masterclass in what an art of ideas can be, from the simple declarative prose to the grandeur of a wall that seems to seep mud. There is modesty, but no false modesty. There is reticence, but no inarticulacy.
There are criticisms to make of Long. Perhaps he is too pure, too clean an artist - not visceral enough. Perhaps his simplicity lacks nuance and depth. But, to be honest, in this deeply attractive and moving exhibition, it's hard to remember what potential reservations there might be. Today he seems like a wonderful British visionary, heir to Blake as much as to Constable.'


Forthvalley scribe said...

A very interesting post. Thank you

Anonymous said...

I made a long journey myself from Devon to london, partly to see this exhibition. I was not disappointed!
I think it is an important exhibition, not just in terms of art history, and one that I shall always remember.
So glad to have come across your blog!