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Richard Long: Heaven and Earth

Richard Long’s fieldwork is a still point in an endlessly turning world

In The Songlines, his remarkable book about the ancient, invisible pathways criss-crossing Australia that carry hymns to the land’s creation, the late Bruce Chatwin wrote that by “singing the word into existence . . . the Ancestors had been poets in the original sense of poiesis, meaning ‘creation’.

No Aboriginal could conceive that the created world was in any way imperfect. His religious life had a single aim: to keep the land the way it was and should be. The man who went ‘walkabout’ was making a ritual journey.”

The artist Richard Long has found new ways to make and use walks which not only connect him to these ancient wanderings, but also have their own, particular purpose. He likes common materials: stones, sticks, mud and water, with which he creates symmetrical patterns that link time and place, the wilderness and the gallery. His talent as an artist, he says, “is to walk across a moor, or place a stone on the ground”.

It all started in 1967, when, at the age of 22, Long conceived A Line Made by Walking, and in so doing changed our understanding of sculpture. A student at St Martin’s, he took a train from Waterloo, got off at the nearest station and found a suitable field, where he walked back and forth until the flattened grass became visible as a line in the sunlight, whereupon he took a photograph. There were no materials involved, no welding, and no “making”. The piece simply involved an idea, a minimal physical act and a photograph. A Line Made by Walking has been likened in its impact to Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square of 1915, changing the face of sculpture much as Malevich’s work cancelled previous concepts of what constituted a painting.

The previous year, Long had gone to a performance in London by the experimental composer John Cage. Cage’s theories about the interchangeability of art and life, and his interest in Zen Buddhism and Taoism, were to have a profound effect. This abiding interest is apparent in the opening room of Long’s first major survey exhibition in London for 18 years, where the visitor is greeted by two hexagrams from the I Ching running from floor to ceiling. But it is his solitary walks, whether through the Dorset landscape or further afield on the plains of Canada, Mongolia and Bolivia, that are the backbone of his practice. Long’s interventions are always minimal – a ring of stones arranged in the middle of the Gobi Desert, a line of small standing stones on Cul Mor, Scotland, or a zigzag of campfire ash left by Lake Titicaca. He understands the human longing for wilderness, and through his modest interventions forces us to evaluate the marks and traces we leave behind in the landscape. Unusually for a contemporary artist, there is no cynicism in his work, and even less ego. He simply disappears off into the wild, creates his resonant, archetypal forms and then photographs them. Other work is made specifically with the gallery in mind, and at Tate Britain the large central room is devoted to six major stone sculptures, including Norfolk Flint Circle (1990), an eight-metre stone circle placed on the floor, and the beautiful Red Slate Circle (1988).

Long’s explorations of the relationship between time, distance and movement are also mapped in text works fixed to the gallery walls. These are verbal traces of his walks, in which Long simply chronicles what he has seen. In the din of modern life, there is something deeply refreshing about these still points in an endlessly turning world.

Until 6 September.

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This article first appeared in the 22 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Iran