Assessment of Richard Long's use of Dartmoor as a subject for his art.
Click here for Long's official website.
“Assess Richard Long’s use of Dartmoor as a subject for his art”
by Adam Edwards
Richard Long is among a rare breed of artist who represent a fresh start in their subject. By comparison with American Land Artists such as Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson, who used heavy machinery and shifted large quantities of earth to create large scale artistic works in the landscape, Richard Long developed a new, individual approach to the subject based around ideas and a small number of easily recognisable forms such as the line, circle, cross and spiral. He introduced text and maps into his works to facilitate evocative records of his varied walking experiences and showed great interest in varying the methods of measurement relating to his walks and their effects. Indeed, it is the act of walking itself which Long makes the subject of the majority of his art, and though he has travelled the globe he embarks on these walks not for travel, but for the experience offered by walking in varied environments. As he began to see the whole world as one large viable workspace, the forms and ideas comprising Long’s artistic repertoire started to appear in different countries and climates. Yet it was in England, on the plains of Dartmoor near his Bristol home, that Long developed his own unique approach to his subjects before carrying his ideas abroad during his many international walks. Dartmoor’s land is neither too high nor too low and lacks any dominant features, making it an ideal location in which Long could develop his artistic forms and techniques. It was to become a prototype landscape for his later, far-reaching works, and was a crucial location in the development of Long’s particular artistic vocabulary.
One of his earliest works employing the line as a motif is titled A Line Made by Walking, of 1967, in which Long made a straight, barely visible line by walking back and forth across a field in England, taking a photograph to document his impermanent mark on the landscape. A Line Made by Walking was considered almost insultingly simplistic when originally exhibited but in his use of the line as his main motif Long began to break down the traditional barriers of artistic perception. A year later a variant of Long’s motif of the line emerged in the form of a cross in a field of daisies, again documented through photography, except here two impermanent straight lines intersect each other. For evidence of the use of these forms in varied locations we may look to any number of Long’s works across the globe, examples of which are attached.
Walking a line is among the most simple of things a human can do to make a mark on a place, however the idea of the path carries with it great meaning in all cultures; as something seen yet hidden, as something real and yet symbolic. Similarly the work of Richard Long is at once both comprehensibly simple and potentially complex. The path or line also carries great significance in religion; in Christianity as the Pilgrim’s Way, in Taoism as the Great Way, in Buddhism as the Heavenly Way. It is perhaps then of little surprise that Richard Long’s universal forms have found acceptance in such a wide range of environments. Yet it was in England that Long developed his ideas surrounding these universal forms, and he may in part have taken inspiration from the ancient stone patterns on Dartmoor dating back to the bronze and iron ages. While not necessarily exactly matching the forms Long developed, they may have seeped into his subconscious given the relative frequency with which he visited Dartmoor.
In addition to the line, Richard Long began to use the circle extensively as the basis for a number of works overseas.Circle in Africa demonstrates Long’s adaptability and showcases his view that he makes art “for the land, not against it” [i] Having arrived in the Malawian mountains intending to construct a circle from stones, Long discovered there were very few to be found and used the material in greatest abundance – lightning stricken cacti – in order to make his circle. Speaking in Words After the Fact, Long thought, “…the language and ambition of art were due for renewal. I felt art had barely recognized the natural landscapes which cover this planet, or had used the experiences those places could offer. Starting on my own doorstep and later spreading, part of my work since has been to try and engage this potential.”[ii] Despite the number of variables Long changes from work to work they all seem to link together as part of a whole, a characteristic aspect of Long’s art about which he seems pleased, saying, “That is the movement of the work and the structure of its development: outward and concentric.”
Having decided to expand his art into the greater world, Dartmoor became perhaps even more crucial as a practice ground for Long as he began to explore the land in new and original ways. In addition to the cross and the line, Long added the spiral, the meander, the square and the circle to his repertoire to give himself a small selection of universally recognisable forms via which he could form a connection with the landscape. In his choosing to use such simple forms, Long’s audience is not required to engage with a complex, individual artistic language to interpret his work. They are quickly able to recognise the forms and compare the change in setting and materials, to name but two variables Long utilised. Long’s works exist essentially as ‘facts’ – that is to say ideas which carry the process of their making within them.[iii]
In relation to working to an audience Long said, “I think all my works, my actions have no meaning outside what they are. So if you think it’s significant, then it’s significant…my works should be things or ideas in their own right…the viewer can also bring things to the work, bring conclusions to it, which I could not foresee, but that’s completely different from the artist making certain explanations and giving certain symbolic meanings to the work.”[iv] They are open to interpretation and carry with them a profundity from having been familiar since the start of humanity. Yet more simply on his choice of forms Long once remarked, “I choose lines and circles because they do the job”[v], that is, to convey the experience of his walk.
Long began to combine lines with maps and they would often determine the route he was to walk. In his 1974 work entitled Eight Walks, Long drew eight lines of equal length along the gridlines of an Ordnance Survey map such that each line was the same distance as five grid squares on the map. He then proceeded to walk each of the lines and recorded the time taken for each, presenting the work in map form, with the walks marked along the gridlines of the map, and the time taken to walk the length of each line written alongside. Being able to see the varying times, the contours of the land and the paths of nearby rivers, one begins to get a sense of the contours of the land during each walk. Here Long has also used the variable of time as a measuring device for his walk, each having taken between sixty and seventy minutes walking at a constant pace. He experimented with time in his walks and began to produce a number of map-works based upon his experiences on Dartmoor. An earlier example of Long’s interest in using an overhead, map-style view to document his walk can be seen in Dartmoor Walks of 1972, on which Long has marked his varying walks according to the year in which he undertook them. The four concentric circles mark the outline for the walk which produced the map-work Four Hours, Four Circles, which keeps time as a constant of one hour and instead varies walking speed.
For this work Long drew four concentric circles on the map and began by walking the smallest, very slowly such that he completed the loop in an hour exactly. He then walked the other three loops in order and also completed those in an hour, having to walk briskly for the final, largest circle. The map shows closer detail of Dartmoor than the previous work as tors are made visible, and some are even named. Again we get a good sense of the contours Long must have experienced during the walk, but also of the increasing tempo of each walk. In such a way we might discern that upon reaching a tor in the path, Long’s walking pace may have slowed slightly as he navigated the obstacle, and quickened again as he traversed the other side, evoking a genuine feel for the pacing of the walk and the features of the ground. In homage to the ground and the power of nature to carve out an intricate network of rivers in the landscape, Long donned waders in 1978 to walk along all the riverbeds on Dartmoor lying within the area of a circle he had drawn on a map. The walk was presented as a combination of the map and some photographs taken looking along the various rivers, but Long was to become even more creative and experimental with his ideas conducted in and around the Dartmoor area.
In A Hundred Mile Walk Long documents a circular walk on the plains of Dartmoor in 1971-2 through use of a map showing the hundred-mile route next to a photograph from the walk and a short selection of Long’s thoughts relating to the walk. The combination of formats makes for an evocative work in which the experience of the walk itself is clearly the subject, and is in some ways a precursor to Long’s descriptive text-works, a fine early example being A Straight Northward Walk across Dartmoor of 1979.
For this walk Long did not walk along pre-designated grid lines but instead used a compass to navigate towards a known point on the horizon. The work is presented as a list of words ascending from the bottom of the page to the top, as if travelling from south to north. Reading it in such a way allows the audience to gain a true sense of Long’s own experience of the walk, of a person reacting to their surroundings while travelling a straight path toward the horizon. He also produced a number of circular text-works, such as One Hour of 1984, in which, similarly to with A Straight Northward Walk across Dartmoor, the arrangement of the words indicates the shape of Long’s walk. In One Hour only singular words are used but they give a rich impression of the walk and the surrounding nature, with many describing the ground, terrain and surrounding elements. Long himself perceives the ground as giving balance and stability of focus, preventing thoughts from fragmenting and putting the artist in a humble position in relation to his subject. This facilitates connection as opposed to confrontation with nature, and demonstrates the influence a terrain might have in aiding the state of mind Long preferred to be in while working in the landscape – that of being relaxed, almost absent-minded.
Dartmoor had acted as a practice landscape for Long before expanding his ideas and forms to other countries, and it also acted as a place where he could work on ideas arising from his travels. In 1985 while in Lappland, Long began to experiment with the wind, as documented in the text work Wind Stones, and continued to do so upon his return to Dartmoor, producing Wind Line the same year. This was perhaps partly inspired by the rough similarity of the Dartmoor landscape with the expansive tundra found in Lappland, and while it arguably lacks the detailed description of Long’s text-works, the Wind Line is reasonably informative as to the landscape when one considers that the prevailing wind direction might change due to the position of a nearby tor or a fluctuation in the land, for example.
Additionally Long began to take an interest in cloud formations and lunar patterns, again using Dartmoor as his chosen terrain on which to experiment with these new methods of navigation. He would follow particular cloud patterns as a guide for his walks during the day and on occasion at night he would use the moon as a basis for navigation. For some walks Long would use the weather as his guide, such as in the text-work Dry Walk of 1989, where he walked a hundred and thirteen miles between one shower of rain and the next. Long also began to move stones from riverbed to riverbed or from tor to tor across fairly significant distances, linking together a few of his working landscapes and adding to the overall sense of unity binding his individual works together.
Long’s involvement with Dartmoor as a working artist now spans decades, and having long since discarded the notion that each work should be individual to a particular place, Long justified his use and re-use of particular places when he said, “To carry out new walks and ideas within the space of England it was necessary to intersect and overlap. So now the country is criss-crossed with different works, enabling me to perceive the same place (England) at different times, from different directions and from artistically different points of view.”[vi] His most extensive work in the area, A Hundred Tors in a Hundred Hours, is a walk which crossed through all Long’s previous Dartmoor walks and took one hundred and fourteen hours to complete. Indeed, Long returned to Dartmoor twenty years or so after having rolled a few stones down a hill to repeat the action, yet would have considered it to be a different environment, changed by the natural passage of time.
In approaching his subject Long is concerned with the emotional connection with nature and in this sense one might argue the roots for his art lay with the Romantic landscape painters of the early twentieth century. However I would argue that Richard Long seeks to make art in the landscape with so fresh a perspective that he effectively represents the start of a new genre of land art. His choice of the subject of walking is in itself unconventional and his constant experimentation with different forms and methods of measurement during his walks on Dartmoor indicates a desire to innovate. Although he has recorded his walks and works through use of photography, maps and text-works, many of Long’s ‘sculptures’ exist in the landscape undocumented, as manifestations of a personal connection with nature rather than as art for an audience. Long said his art is in the nature of things, and in contrast to certain Romantic landscape artists he does not seek to idealise landscapes, rather he allows himself to be influenced by his natural surroundings.
Richard Long still returns to his Bristol home to rest and experiment between walks, and as such Dartmoor has proven to be an indispensable practice ground for Long’s art over the years. It has enabled Long to develop his own unique approach to his subject in a nearby location relatively untouched by the passage of time. As an artist who effectively marks the start of his own sub-genre of art, Richard Long’s work has had a significant impact on the world due to the ideas, universality, and variety it comprises. The overall unity to his work comes from years of developing his particular repertoire of forms and ideas, much of which he did in the Dartmoor landscape. Here he gained his inspiration to travel and walk in foreign climates, while at the same time developing the ideas and forms which now are synonymous with his name.
Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit, Verso, London, 2001
Richard Long: Walking in Circles by Richard Long, Richard Cork and Hamish Fulton, Thames and Hudson, 1991
Richard Long by R.H. Fuchs, Thames and Hudson, 1986
Mountains of the Mind, A History of Fascination by Robert MacFarlane, Granta Books, 2004
Richard Long: Walking the Line by Richard Long
JSTOR – Richard Long at Anthony d’Offay by Michael Craig-Martin, The Burlington Magazine Vol. 122, No. 932 (November 1980) pp.790-792.
[i] Richard Long: Walking in Circles
[ii] From Words after the Fact (1982) in Richard Long by R.H. Fuchs
[iii] Richard Long: Walking in Circles
[iv] Richard Long: Walking in Circles
[v] From Five Six pick up sticks, Seven Eight lay them straight (1980) in Richard Long by R.H. Fuchs
[vi] Richard Long by R.H. Fuchs