In Richard Long’s retrospective exhibition, ‘Heaven and Earth’, we caught sight of the artist only twice. After passing between two dramatic wall drawings depicting, in vigorously spattered River Avon mud, the I Ching symbols for heaven and earth – the first glimpse of Long was something of a disappointment. Hill Figure England/Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro (1969) shows the young artist, hands on hips, photographed with the volcano in the distance. The ‘hill figure’, with which this small image is partnered, is an aerial photograph of an ancient geoglyph, cut into a chalky hillside, of a human form framed within a rectangle. It is no accident that Long’s rucksack provides a visual rhyme with this shape: the contemporary artist, conquering a mountain, and early man, inscribing his image on the earth, are implicitly one and the same.
Hill Figure England… is revealing about the contradictions at the heart of Long’s practice, which he has sustained and enriched (but only moderately extended) since he first made A Line Made by Walking in 1967, which was shown in the same gallery. The latter work, which this broadly chronological exhibition took as its starting point, owes its success to simplicity: a black and white photograph of a line trodden through grass, mounted above the caption, printed in sans serif font, ‘A Line Made by Walking, England, 1967’. The economy of the work – not just its frugality, but its sealed system of effort and effect, time invested and contained, information withheld and revealed – brings it close to a kind of holistic perfection. It appeals to our contemporary concern for ecological sustainability (however symbolic), and is, in its quiet way, rather humourous about what an art work might consist of.
On the face of it, A Line Made by Walking is an extremely humble art work. However, despite Long’s assertion that he was ‘keen that people didn’t know what [he] looked like, and that the work had to speak for itself’, the artist is ever present. (The exhibition’s explanatory wall texts, for instance, were written in the first person, as if Long was giving a personal tour of his show.) Unlike much Conceptual, process-based art, Long’s hand (or foot) reveals itself either explicitly or implicitly as an expressive tool; the trodden grass or dusty pathways that he wears down through repetitive walking and the splashes of mud around his wall drawings (such as this year’s From Beginning to End, wet Vallauris clay applied directly to a wall with his fingers) both speak evocatively of the artist’s toil. Pencil marks on the floor indicating the boundary of a stone circle are reminders of the effort that put them there. In the work Light Snow Sleeping Place (1983), Long records the patch he left on the grass after sleeping outdoors on a snowy night. There is more than a sneaking sense of martyrdom in all this. While his work fudges an idea of hybrid Western and Eastern spirituality, it is distinctly Christian proclivities – Protestant modesty combined with a Catholic taste for penance – that emanate most strongly from Long’s work. From a more pop-cultural perspective, could the references to brooding, lone-wolf country and western musicians such as Johnny Cash and Gram Parsons (as in 2004’s text work Walking Music, or Walking the Line, his 2005 monograph) also suggest something about Long’s self-image?
The show took us from early, framed grainy photographs and Ordnance Survey maps showing walking routes marked in coloured pencil and titles inscribed carefully, but imperfectly, beneath, to huge vinyl text pieces that fill whole walls and photographs that, in Long’s recent move into colour, are no longer documents so much as evocations. They are none the better for it. The strength of Long’s early work is that it acknowledges the limitations of the landscape genre: an image’s ineffectiveness in reproducing a sense of place; the arbitrariness of its pictorial conventions; the inconsistent sentimentality with which we approach the natural world. As time goes by Long seems to have succumbed to these tropes himself. What he has described as a ‘realist’ approach curdles into an aesthetic that is nostalgic and sentimental. In his terse, haiku-like records of his journeys, it is more interesting to consider what he omits than what he includes. Human interventions such as car parks, mountain bikes or aeroplanes are largely absent; while he might appear to reporting from untouched wilderness, Long is in fact intervening in the world by editing his representations of it.
‘Heaven and Earth’ allowed two surprising moments of clarity, however. The first was a vast, light-filled gallery containing four circles of gathered stones, a line of slates and an ellipse of basalt chunks arranged across the floor. These works were perhaps the least ‘natural’ things in the show: although washed, sorted into size and laid out in tidy geometric shapes, they came without captions or contextual information, which allowed them to establish their own sense of place in the gallery. The second moment was something of a footnote to the retrospective, and the only other occasion featuring Long in front of the camera lens: a room containing artist’s books, posters and invitation cards for his previous shows. Here ‘Heaven and Earth’ acknowledged the real landscape that Long walks through – that of the contemporary art world – and how an artist’s persona is developed, propagated and disseminated.