Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Walk is the Work

I remember seeing a Richard Long piece a couple of years ago in Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery. One of his slate circles, in a badly lit room, out of any meaningful context and on scruffy parquet. I was shocked to see the piece was unkempt: the delicate gaps between the slates were clogged with fluff and dust, as though Mrs Mopp had come along and emptied the contents of her Hoover bag. I remember thinking that while the lack of space and funding was understandable there was no excuse for the sorry state of the sculpture. I hope things have improved; if not then given the West Country is the manor of Mr Long himself, the trustees should, frankly, go round and explain themselves to the artist. I shudder to think of the state of my favourites there: the Gaudier-Brzeska perhaps, or the Henry Scott-Tuke (thankfully that is at least behind glass otherwise it would probably be hung three-feet from the floor and covered in kiddies crayon).

This memory has erupted to the fore in trying to remember when I’ve seen Richard Long’s work before, and what I thought about it. I had not seen a big solo show up until now, so I have perhaps missed the opportunity to know the work fully. Or rather part of it, because Long’s work is made up of separate ways of working that feed each other. But I should have been more aware of him for he is all about landscape and territory and, crucially, man’s relationship to it. The work is about our place in the world.

Heaven and Earth opens with Heaven and with Earth on opposing walls (as if to get this minor cosmic binary out of the way prior to hitting the landlocked human condition with a bump). Two brand new wall-sculptures of huge i-Ching symbols described directly on to the wall by hand in River Avon mud that has splattered pleasingly onto surrounding walls and ceiling as though the interior space were struggling to contain the natural stuff of nature. We are then shot back in time with Long’s earliest documentation of his remote walks. Walking is central to his dialogue with the landscape; it is how he interacts and involves himself with it; it is also the walking that is the sculpture. What we see in the gallery is the documentation and the show gives the chance to see the early stuff - beautifully presented handmade records of the sculptural activity. Lines on maps connecting up routes or black and white photographs presented in a frame with a white surround and a short suggestive text: perhaps just a place-name printed underneath, or a brief description of the route, together with a plotted observation of trees, streams or stones. The documentation is the record of the sculptural involvement. It recalls the look of it, something of the scale of it; the sculpture has passed but it's surround and after-effect is offered up for our consideration. Towards the end of the show the documentation component is given over to huge, over-designed, shouty wall-texts; I am unsure about the text taking up entire walls but perhaps this is a brash update of Long’s 1970’s careful pencil captions for the 21st Century.

Long's other area of documentation is the book; and there are is a room of them as an aside to the exhibition, all beautifully designed in Long's stylish aesthetic over some fourty years. The catalogue too has been designed by Long and the free handout for the show, which folds out into a sort of poster and text piece, is as beautiful as the books in the vitrines. You can also pick up several nice paper things from the Long archive in the shop - in particular a lovely booklet called 'Five Six Pick up Sticks' from Anthony d'Offay in 1980 for the sum of two quid.

There's also a great room of indoor floor sculptures. Long was keen to show ‘real work in public time and spaces' in addition to the documentation of his walking sculpture so began making the floor pieces for which he is perhaps best known. The room is big but I couldn't help thinking it might have been better to show perhaps three with more space around them rather than five; it was great to see these works I just had some difficulty separating them. Perhaps the Tate is too small to show them together.

It occurs to me in thinking about this show that it is strange how cultural relevance can hit one unexpectedly. I have often been dimly aware of an artist, even seen work regularly, but failed to connect with the artist’s intentions and ideas until some unexpected time when it seems to plug into my current concerns.

Long’s investigative searching, his use and plunder of wild lonely swathes of Britain and of elsewhere, has fed my own explorations of landscape at a time when I am most ready to receive it, and more than I could possibly have hoped.

Richard Long at the Tate