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Artist interview

Interview with artist Richard Long: Still walking, after all these years

Long’s latest show is a collaboration with Indian tribal artist Jivya Soma Mashe

Landscape has always been recorded by artists. Richard Long has made the subject uniquely his own, working outdoors using natural materials such as grass and water, which evolved into the idea of making sculpture by walking. His first work on foot, in 1967, was a straight line in a grass field. In the subsequent early map works, recording very simple but precise walks on Exmoor and Dartmoor, he pioneered a new art form, now known as land art. Here he discusses his works, and walks, old and new.

The Art Newspaper: Two of the text works at Haunch of Venison are based on Celtic walks in Galicia and Brittany, and then there are a number of works derived from time spent in India. For over three decades you have been walking all over the world. How do you choose where to go?

Richard Long: For all different reasons. For a love and knowledge of a place, like Dartmoor, or on a whim, almost for no reason at all. I could choose favourite stony places like the west of Ireland or Bolivia. The main reason for going to India was to meet the tribal artist Jivya Soma Mashe because we are doing a show together in the Museum Kunst Palast in Düsseldorf in September.

TAN: Once you’ve decided do you research the place?

RL: No.

TAN: What is it about walking that makes it such a central part of your work?

RL: I love walking. And it can leave a mark, many footprints can make a path. Walking as a medium enabled me to bring a big increase in scale and space (distance) into a work of art. Time could become a fourth dimension. Walking can express many different ideas. For example, I have used riverbeds on Dartmoor as footpaths; I have carried stones in my pocket for many miles to make sculptures about movement, transference and re-location. I can use it as a simple human measure of time, like walking across a country, or from one planetary event to another, or from one shower of rain to the next.

TAN: Can you tell me about the works that you’ve made as a result of your time among the Warli tribe and in collaboration with the artist Jivja Soma Mashe?

RL: You had best wait for the exhibition, which is more a juxtaposition of our work then a collaboration. We are both in very different ways landscape artists. Jivya is a narrative painter of his rural and tribal life, using white rice paste on mud walls or dung-covered cloth. I use mud on walls and floors, and in one sculpture I made there was a circle of rice chaff in a paddy-field. So there are connections to be made between us, even though we come from very different cultures.

TAN: You’ve said that “places give me the energy for ideas”. Can you describe how this works?

RL: A good campsite could give me a good night’s sleep which could set me up for a good work the next day. On a wilderness walk I will find places that are much better for me to make art in than a studio or a gallery or a museum. Such places could be above the clouds or with a distant horizon, or with fantastic or practical-to-use stone formations, or in mist. My way of working enables me to use all of these possibilities, it represents the freedom to potentially make art anywhere, without constraints. I try and use strategies that communicate this freedom, which owes a lot to the ease and simplicity and independence of walking.

TAN: The way you take the walks is also infinitely various: fast walks, slow walks, long walks, relatively short walks, meandering walks, walks in straight lines, walks punctuated by throwing or placing stones or handfuls of mud. Is this spontaneous or do you plan what you are going to do in advance?

RL: The idea often comes first, many walks are planned in advance, but there are some which get changed by circumstance or which throw up better or unforeseen ideas. Sometimes the idea comes along the way, only by doing the walk.

TAN: You’ve referred to “ritualised” walking, and certainly it is the process rather than the arrival that seems to be the most important part. Is it correct to say that it is not the sense of journey that is the key thing here?

RL: Yes.

TAN: Sometimes it also seems as though you are testing the limits of you endurance, such as “Hours miles” (1996) which involved covering 82 miles in 24 hours. Phew!

RL: Yes, but the idea about “Hours miles” was to present a kind of symmetrical inversion, or balance, between difficulty and ease, because the other half of that work was to walk 24 miles in 82 hours.

TAN: How do you decide when to stop and make a work?

RL: It just happens, by chance. While walking in a landscape I’ve not seen before, to discover new places is natural. I’m an opportunist, and that opportunity could be camel droppings scattered on the Mongolian steppe, or a flat rock-face by a river for a waterline, or a light dusting of snow around my tent after breaking camp, or coming to a place with some volcanic plug alignments receding to the horizon.

TAN: How does the sculpture that you make during a walk relate to the sculpture that you make inside the gallery? Do you regard them as equally important?

RL: They are made by the same artist, but in very different circumstances. My landscape works do come first, and inform the works I make in galleries. But a photo of a distant and perhaps vanished sculpture is complementary to a sculpture in a gallery. For me, its not either/or, its both. I would not want my art only to be in a recording or documentary form, which is by definition “second hand”. I like the idea that I can show you something “here and now” as well as something from another time or place.

TAN: Do you find it easier to work outdoors than in a gallery setting?

RL: In general, yes, although I’ve had some memorable exhibition experiences, like my show in the Bilbao Guggenheim.

TAN: Although in very different places and in different media, you always return to the language of lines and circles. What is it about these forms that makes them such a constant in you work?

RL: They are platonic truths which can continually be re-invented with new ideas, circumstances, places and materials. They have the authentic power and intellectual beauty of universal forms. Anyway my work is also about cosmic variety, every place is different, every fingerprint, stone, mud-splash is unique. I could make a million stone circles and they’d all be different.

TAN: What is the relationship of your text pieces and your photographs to your walks and sculpture? Do you see them as important, or do they fulfil a documentary role?

RL: They are important because they record experiences and places which I want to communicate and share. So although they are by nature “documentary”, I hope they become art in another way, on my terms. It was never my intention that my landscape sculptures become known and visited “sites”. That would destroy the very spirit of the place that inspired them. I like the fact that they are “anonymous” or may disappear. Or may only be seen by a few people, or seen but not recognised as art, as many of my stones must be.

TAN: What first made you want to use walking as an artistic medium? Did it come from a desire to engage directly with nature? Or was it also part of a more general shift towards an art of ideas, of lightness of touch and anti-monumentalism that was also being embraced by a number of your contemporaries in the 60s, from Bruce McLean to Gilbert & George?

RL: Yes, all those things were in the air. I did have the desire to engage with natural things like grass, water and leaves, which took me on a progression from a studio, to a garden, to the Clifton Downs, to Exmoor, to making a sculpture on top of Kilimanjaro in 1969, for example.

TAN: How do you think your work has evolved over the years?

RL: There’s more of it, so there is now a richness of cumulative meaning. A walk on Dartmoor now cannot be like my first walk there, because I have all that experience and history on my back. So it’s different, and a challenge, but also positive. Repetition can reinforce significance. There are by now so many cross-references between water, the stones, the mud, the rivers, the criss-crossed walks, all the roads and places used at different times and seasons for different reasons.

TAN: What do you want to convey to the visitor who walks into the Haunch of Venison and encounters your work, maybe for the first time?

RL: I hope they would find it physically, emotionally and intellectually stimulating. “Wisdom is, often, as wisdom laughs.”

Biography

Born: 1945, Bristol

Currently showing: Haunch of Venison,”Here and there and now”, until 30 August

Solo shows include: 2003 “Hand Made”, Galleria Lorcan O’Neill, Rome 2002 Galerie Tschudi, Glarus, Switzerland; Tate St Ives, Cornwall 2001 Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris; Museu Serralves, Porto , Portugal; Milwaukee Art Museum 2000 Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London; Guggenheim, Bilbao 1999 Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London 1998 kunst auf der zugspitze, Zugspitze, near Munich 1997 Benesse Museum of Contemporary Art, Naoshima, Japan 1996 Setagaya Art Museum, Tokyo