Walking the walk
Alexander Kennedy takes a walk on the not so wild side, and speaks to Richard Long about his new work on show at the SNGMA
When art exited the gallery in the 1960s, the street outside became a theatre for performances and an arena for installations - a move that simultaneously questioned the sanctity of the art object and the white cube that protected it. Some artists opted to create hard-faced works that unashamedly dominated public spaces, acting as ciphers and embodiments of the culture of fear and separation that characterised the last decades of the Cold War, while others, Richard Long included, ran for the hills and created pastoral work that rejected the urban art rat race, yet remained theoretically purist. Or maybe that should be ‘walked to the hills’ (his first major work being a walking performance and the accompanying photos of the marks he made after pacing back and forth in a straight line in a park).
He doesn’t see it like this. ‘The work comes first,’ he says. ‘It’s more important than the context; how it is received comes after. It is not a critique of the gallery system. I am just interested in all the various ways I can make my work in the world’. But it’s difficult not to read his work in relation to an institutional critique, if not, at least a critique of the way work is traditionally received, and meaning controlled. It’s difficult for a gallery to claim or a client to own a circle of stones half way up a hill, for example. For this exhibition Long will present new works from all the usual categories he employs: ‘I’ll be showing new photo and text works from recent walks, new large installed Firth of Forth mud works, a new slate sculpture in the garden, and a first showing of a variety of mud drawings and fingerprint works on paper, driftwood and other wooden objects.’
The impermenance of the objects that the artist makes seems to be central to his project, with his walks (these could be thought of ‘performances’ in the open field) being recorded in short texts and photographs which are then exhibited and collected in coffee table classics. ‘The work can be anywhere’, says Long, ‘It can disappear, it can be unseen or untraceable, in other words known only by photographs or narrative. It can be private or public, on a mountain, in a desert, or in a public gallery.’
These works seem to be both about the persistence and mortality of human beings, humanist subjects that are transformed into monuments to life, action, will, and death that can be seen as part of a history of monument nuilding that goes back into prehistory. But again, the artist disagrees: ‘I don’t tackle anything in my work,’ says Long. ‘It’s more a celebration of my engagement with the space, time and materials of the planet I live on, by passing through - walking the landscapes - and leaving a trace, or not.’ Simple statements, actions, forms and meanings. This is the stuff of Richard Long’s work and career. The exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art hopes to demonstrate the importance of such a passion for simplicity and love of nature. My work is about the things that interest me and give me pleasure, both cerebral and physical.’ Simple pleasures indeed.
Richard Long, Walking and Marking, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, until Sun 21 Oct