‘I’ve drunk from every river on Dartmoor’: Land artist Richard Long on changing the face of art | Art and Design

R.Richard Long never carries water with him when he walks. For days, sometimes weeks, the legendary British earth artist who turned walking into an art form has traversed terrains as arid as South Africa’s Karoo desert, India’s tribal lands and the Hoggar Mountains of southern Africa. Algeria without once taking a canteen, a flask or, God forbid, a plastic bottle with him.

“It’s just a question of what’s practical,” he says. “Water is heavy. Finding it is one of the things that determines where I go. When I got to the Sahara it had just rained. I could see it glowing on the ground. I followed him until I came to the first dry trough.”

Long, now 77, is tall and lean, as one might expect of an inveterate walker, standing at 6 feet 4 inches, with a wayward gleam under his black brows and an air of slight uneasiness, as if about to get up. and run out the door at any moment.

This is how I take the title of his new exhibition, Drinking the rivers of DartmoorIsn’t it meant metaphorically? “It’s not metaphorical at all,” she says briefly. “I have been drinking from every river and stream on Dartmoor for my entire adult life.”

The afternoon in 1967 when Long, then a 22-year-old student, decided to walk across a field until he created a line of flattened grass, then photograph it and call it A Line Made by Walking is one of art’s great mythical moments. British. With a simple gesture, Long set the tone for British conceptual art and initiated an entirely new art form: land art, which in its British form, personified by Long, was more elusive, less monumental than american variant – of gestures rather than bombastic structures. Long would go on epic hikes and return with nothing more than a photograph of a stone ring he had made on top of a mountain or the briefest description of where he had been. That would be the job.

Long has extended that idea to gallery-based art, with elemental circles of broken slate and smudged mud drawings filling the walls, winning every major accolade: Turner Prize, Venice Biennale, CBE. However, art conceived and created in the landscape, which deals with time and space but seems to exist in a permanent present, remains at the core of what he does. So it’s interesting and surprising to see him looking back in this new exhibition, not just to older works from the 1970s, but to recent pieces with a retrospective, even autobiographical feel.

Drinking the Rivers of Dartmoor by Richard Long, at the Lisson Gallery in London.
Richard Long, Drinking the Rivers of Dartmoor, at Lisson Gallery, London. Photography: Courtesy of Lisson Gallery

The title work, Drinking the Rivers of Dartmoor, a wall-filling text, is essentially a list of 14 streams (Yealm, Erme, Plym, etc.), presented as a piece of concrete poetry, though he emphasizes that such works are not they are not at all. poetry. It is based on a “six-day ritualized walk through one of the landscape prototypes of my life”, not far from his home in Bristol, “which I have used as a tabula rasa, a blank page, to do what I want. Dartmoor has been in a way my studio.

“Now I have a lot of history. I feel like every time I take a walk I carry in my backpack the history of all the other walks I’ve done. And why shouldn’t it? she adds in a slightly defiant tone.

While I’ve always envisioned Long as aloof, ascetic, probably privileged in classic British explorer mode, in person he seems like a Bristol guy. There is an earthiness to it, despite the slightly alien air, a rare sensation in our increasingly globalized art world, where artists often work between several major centers, deeply rooted in the cultural and geographic terrain that shaped their work and worldview.

Richard Long's Rhythm and Blues, 2011.
Richard Long, Rhythm and Blues, 2011. Photograph: Ken Adlard/Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Born in 1945, the son of a grammar school teacher, Long was raised in Clifton, growing up using the towpath along the nearby Avon Gorge as his “playground”. The knowledge that this area has the second highest and lowest tides in the world, allowing Bristol to function as a port, gave him his “first awareness of the cosmic forces that control everything.” While such a realization feels natural in an art of time and distance in which planetary and seasonal motions play an essential role, he seems uneasy at this admission, concerned that it makes him seem pretentious.

Yet it is essential to Long’s sense of himself that he “has always been an artist.” His teachers were impressed enough by his skills to excuse him from the morning meeting, so he had “a half hour of time to paint on my own every day.” That “on my own” feels meaningful. Long insists that he likes meeting people, but the path he’s taken has always been his own.

While it was clear he would start at Bristol’s Royal West of England Academy as soon as possible, he soon fell out with his teachers as his early passion for Van Gogh gave way to a form of installation art of his own invention. After seeing a sculpture on the ground by the Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi at the Tate, at a time when I was reading Bertrand Russell’s pop science book The ABC’s of Relativity, Long plastered a path through the college studio to “explore relative motion, using the body as a moving object over immobile things.” This sounds pretty far-fetched for a 17-year-old who, by his own admission, “had no idea what was going on in art.” But the RWA staff were unimpressed, and after informing his parents that his son was “mad”, they promptly expelled him.

Long, however, had no intention of giving up. While his groundbreaking work, A Line Made by Walking, coincided with the most advanced developments in global art, it seems that Long, left to his own devices, could have come to that era-defining conclusion quite a bit. Independent.

Richard Long, Mangrove Line, 2013.
Richard Long, Mangrove Line, 2013. Photography: Courtesy of Lisson Gallery

In the freezing winter of 1964, while doing odd jobs for Bristol City Council, Long climbed up the Downs, the open green space next to Clifton, made a snowball and “kept rolling it until it was so heavy it wouldn’t budge.” plus”. ”. He then photographed the dark track through the snow as a “drawing”. “It was,” he says, “the perfect prototype of what I was going to do for the rest of my life: something I made with my own physical effort, using the materials from the place, then recording it in an image to show people what I had done. .

But was the work deliberate, conscious, or had he just been playing with a snowball? She racks her brains. “It must have been deliberate, because I had the camera with me. When you’re a young artist you don’t understand what you’re doing. I just got a sense of the potential of the world outside of the studio.”

Cut to 1967, when as a student on the advanced sculpture course at St Martin’s College London, where he was part of a famous experimental year that included Gilbert & George, Long re-enacted this sculpture depicted in the work that would make him famous. .

“I took a suburban train out of Waterloo. As soon as we were in the field, I got off at the first station. I found the first field I came to and made the line.” This was at the height of the Summer of Love, at a time when pop art had run its course, and no one in Britain knew where art was headed next. “There was all this fantastic music being made, the Beatles, psychedelia. But he was quite proud that what he was doing had nothing to do with it. He knew that he was doing something really important: expanding the territory of art ”.

Successive walks became progressively more ambitious. After creating what he intended to be the world’s tallest work of art, leaving a flag atop Kilimanjaro, he produced A Thousand Hours, A Thousand Miles in 1974, a spiral ride through central England, including the center of Birmingham. “In A Line Made By Walking I made a trace on the ground, and that was the job. But in this piece there was no trace. The symmetry of the idea was the work. You could say that traditional sculpture was about the space between objects, and here he was extending that to 1,000 miles.”

Richard Long, Circle in the Andes, 1972.
Richard Long, Circle in the Andes, 1972. Photography: Courtesy of Lisson Gallery

It is one of the central ideas of minimalism, with which Long has been closely associated, that art should evoke nothing more than the material actuality of its own form. However, Long’s art is enormously evocative on many levels. The elemental forms of it are familiar to people, whether it is a cross in a meadow formed by tearing off the heads of daisies or a circle of rocks left in a high mountain pass. They seem to echo the primary traces left by ancient cultures: the vast “earth drawings” created by indigenous Peruvians or the Neolithic stone monuments of Great Britain.

Long declares himself open to the coincidences that naturally occur between forms and cultures. He will even admit that there is a spiritual aspect to his work, although he doesn’t want to talk about it for fear of appearing, again, “pretentious”.

However, he has always denied that his work has any connection to Wordsworth’s English romanticism. “Not at all, no,” he snaps, the words barely out of my mouth. But isn’t there also time, distance, seasons and circles in, say, Turner’s paintings? “Of course there is! And I am a product of England, raised on an island, going on holiday to the coast, always looking at the ocean.”

The lockdown made her realize how much she could do if she stepped out her front door and explored the maze of footpaths around her home on the outskirts of Bristol, a couple of miles from where she was born.

“I’ve been very lucky,” he says. “Making walking art has given me the freedom to work anywhere in the world. But I realized that if I had been confined, for whatever reason, within a 10-mile radius of Bristol, I could still have achieved everything I wanted to do as an artist.”

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