PRINT Summer 1980

Long Walks

WHY GO FOR A WALK? Not to get anywhere; the lack of destination makes it a walk rather than a journey. But a walk is never aimless; you set limits even before you start out: “as far as the woods,” “around the lake,” “along the river to the bridge and back.” Expediency determines the structure of a journey; on a walk you impose your own.

A walk offers a chance to check up on nature, to give in to your senses. You can take your self along for company, or leave it behind, depending on your mood. You can take the dog—an ideal arrangement, since your separate amusements don’t intrude on one another. It’s usually a mistake, as William Hazlitt has said, to go with a friend. Chatting turns the walk into a visit, and miles roll by without your once managing to come in touch with the sensibility of walking.

A walk is an abstraction, an idea. It is a particular kind of passage through space and time; you embark on it to stretch your consciousness as much as your legs. A journey is aimed at its end; the point of a walk is the walk itself.

Richard Long’s art must touch somehow on our experience of walking. Otherwise, why would we find his solitary travels so oddly affecting? When news of them reaches us they are long over. All we get is an Ordnance Survey map, a few photographs, and terse notations of location and duration, deliberately edited of seductive detail. Unlike his literary counterparts, who delight in describing their shanks’ mare adventures, Long tells only that he went.

This absence of rhetoric results in a kind of transparency; Long passes through the countryside, a figure only hinted at, eluding the art audience. There is no way to visit his temporary sculptures of stones or brush, no invitation to follow his carefully structured routes. So the work remains largely cerebral: a mind, more than a body, traveling through the landscape. If we let our minds wander after him, however, we begin to gain limited access to his art. We will never be privy to his experience, but we can reconstrue it to a certain extent. “Going for a walk” can put us in step with him.

Long’s work takes several forms: walks with a stated purpose and duration, site sculptures made in remote places from whatever materials he finds when he gets there, and large floor installations in galleries and museums (the most tangible, though least evocative). All have an economy of gesture; concept, method and materials converge neatly. In the walks the three are synonymous. Less obviously, this is also true of the outdoor pieces.

Long never “forces” a work; stones are used when there are stones, branches when there are branches, brush when there is brush. It’s all local produce; nothing is imported. His works may last or they may become overgrown or wash away. It doesn’t matter, since he doesn’t intend anyone to see them. In the end, we are left with nothing but the knowledge of Long’s intervention, handed to us in the form of photographs and captions describing two generalized particulars—medium and place: Sticks in Somerset, A Circle in the Andes, Stones in Clare.

The indoor pieces—lines, circles and spirals of stones, sticks or dirt placed on the floor—share aspects of this conceptual and structural oneness, for each remains tied to its site despite its deportation. Stones and sticks are often from the vicinity of the installation; their source becomes the work’s title. The position of a specific element within a piece is usually determined by its relation to the other elements, so that while individual installations might differ, a work’s concept remains the same. Driftwood sticks of various lengths are laid down in rows so that each stick is a certain number of its own lengths in front of its predecessor. A track of muddy footprints, “the length of a straight walk from the bottom to the top of Silbury Hill,” is curled into a spiral, the size of the room determining the number of coils. Presumably these works could be redone; I know of a large circle of loose stones that is periodically picked up and put back. Long specified the diameter of the circle and left written instructions that the stones lie randomly within it, resting on their longest, flattest and most stable sides without touching each other.

The scale of Long’s art is often ambiguous. Considering its utter privacy, its lack of pretension and its scanty traces, it seems intimate and small (a dot or a line on a vast plane; a moment in an aeon). But a walk’s dimensions (often hundreds of miles) or duration (many hours, even several days) are quite sizable. Long’s works are not performances, his unknown endurances are not the stuff of body art. Did he take sandwiches, get caught in the rain, camp out for the night? We are told nothing of this. (How different from Peter Hutchinson’s Foraging, an esthetic hike in the Rockies where recording of detail was the purpose and survival the issue—a theme that became particularly poignant after the artist and his companion dined on the wrong mushrooms.)

Though time and distance complicate our perceptions of scale in Long’s work, they tend to crystallize its structure. One or the other is predetermined on a walk—usually distance, though sometimes, as in A Walk of Four Hours and Four Circles, Dartmoor, 1972, time is the determining factor. This walk is recorded as four concentric circles on an Ordnance map, each representing a one-hour walk. How four trips of such obviously different lengths could all take the same time is not explained—but the artist’s decisions are hinted at: perhaps he strolls slowly, then speeds up, even runs around the largest circle.

The site sculptures are seldom presented within the context of a walk, but occasionally these two facets of Long’s art come together in an enterprise that is conceptually quite terse. For 164 Stones/164 Miles, Long walked across Ireland (164 miles) “placing a nearby stone on the road at every mile along the way.” He lists the number of stones per county he passed through: Clare 49 stones, Tipperary 38 stones/Kilkenny 27 stones, Leix 9 stones, Carlow 20 stones, Wicklow 21 stones. The piece combines a long walk, an immense stone sculpture (or is it? It only has 164 stones; much shorter lines have contained more) and a substructure in which the counties, boundaries in themselves, are represented by stones, which represent miles, which are arbitrary measurements in the first place. It is a major work, but Long boils it down to a two-page spread in a book, with text on the left and a photograph of the road, and a stone, on the right.

Though much of Long’s work is linear, its development is not. Ideas appear again and again. His art is cyclical, like time, when thought of in terms of hours, seasons, and finally, history. It is natural to perceive time as linear, since one’s life occupies such a short segment of it that the curve isn’t always noticed. But time circles around and around, renewing, altering, passing by again. A dialogue between the constantly changing and the enduringly permanent takes place in the landscape. Long’s recurring motifs—the line, the circle, the spiral—emerge from landscape, and have acquired something of its character.

It is tempting to take an art/historical walk through time, back from Richard Long’s work. One could start at the stone circles of neolithic Britain and the spiral carvings of the Bronze Age, travel along early Roman roads, and take in Medieval pilgrimages, especially that of Edward I, who erected stone crosses at each resting place of the funeral procession of his queen. The 17th and 18th centuries become even more interesting. Not only is there all that theory about the “natural artifice” of parks and gardens; you could also make the Grand Tour of Europe, de rigueur for the well-heeled young Englishman. Traveling within the British Isles became equally popular about this time, Samuel Johnson’s trip with Boswell to the Hebrides being one literary result. Next century you could drop in on Constable and Turner and take a stroll around the Lake District with Wordsworth and friends. And once you hit the 20th, if you’re at a loss for directions, just consult the Blue Guide, that compendium of fanatical detail that fascinates the English traveler and reveals as much as any romantic poet.

In trying to attach any of this to Long, however, one inevitably comes a cropper. It has everything—and nothing—to do with him. Long makes no secret of his interest in the ancient work; some pieces draw directly on it. Stonehenge and the Cerne Abbas giant have been focal points for walks; a labyrinth carved in a boulder in Ireland generated his Connemara Sculpture, 1971, where he reproduced the design in stones on the ground. Other works, which involve spirals and circles, especially circles of standing stones, incorporate this history as fully, if not as specifically.

The differences between Long and his unknown ancestors are more subtle than the similarities. Were the ancient monuments religious, funereal, astronomical? Convincing arguments have been put forth for all three. But Long does not borrow his sources’ presumed content, as does much recent art that depends on deliberate “primitivizing.” His primary concern seems to be with the geography and topography of the landscape; with measuring and marking on it, with echoing its character in his choice of sculptural materials and methods. Long’s connection with the ancient monuments has more to do with their presence in the landscape than with their role in prehistoric culture.

The pilgrimage model also turns out to be a dead end. Pilgrims undertook arduous journeys propelled by faith and the hope of salvation, or for the good time and good company, as Chaucer would claim. Neither motivation can profitably be applied to Long.

The builders of the great 18th-century gardens and parks may seem closer at first, since their endeavors were at least artful, and involved imposing a structure on nature. But again the connection fades out; those designers were after visual effects—carefully planned vistas that would be pleasing to the eye and mind. With the exception of a very early work, England, 1967, in which he erected a rectangular frame in the landscape and placed a circle on the ground some distance away that was meant to be seen either through or outside of the frame, I know of nothing Long has done that places much emphasis on visual effect. So again he remains, fundamentally, separate.

But Long does have something in common with all of these predecessors, even if specific connections continue to elude us. For their activities are carried out within the landscape itself, particularly the English landscape. A feeling for the countryside has always informed the English sensibility. A small, well-groomed island, spared extremes of climate, Britain has been under cultivation for so long that few parts remain untouched. The traces of the past to be found are not glimpses of its primeval state, but endless evidence of previous tenants (unlike America, where immense areas of wilderness and desert still allow you to preserve at least the illusion that no one has been there before you). In Britain landscape is in short supply; the English dream most fervently of cottages in the country. But their fascination is with the landscape’s spirit, rather than its geology, which offers no challenge to conquer—no vast peaks or wastelands, no major wonders. England offers a landscape of tranquility, solace, respite. A gentle communion with the countryside pervades all English art, Long’s no less than his forebears’.

It is so fundamental to his work, in fact, that he does not alter his approach or methods in foreign terrain. Long has worked in far more rugged places than the British Isles—Alaska, Canada, the Andes, the Himalayas. But the results all evidence the same softness of touch; it is not as though he embarks on such trips for more remote or more challenging quests.

Long’s work may have its roots in the English attitude to the countryside, but it also catalyzes some of the definitive ideas of 1970s art. The abrupt retreat from the frenetic ’60s; the renewed interest in natural rather than industrial forms and materials; a shift in the approach to the art audience, not to mention the change within that audience; the move out of doors, away from the museums and galleries—such developments have characterized, and helped to form, the diffuse activities that composed ’70s art. It is interesting that Long has never worked in a more traditional medium; he has walked only ’70s territory, adapting its recurring themes—the line, the circle, even the grid.

Over the past ten years Long’s work has remained much the same; his gentle interventions in the landscape have maintained their discretion, his indoor pieces continue along similar paths. The line, the circle and the spiral still form the basis of his sculptural vocabulary. But although there has been no radical shift in direction, he continues to hone his processes. For one thing, his work has become more conceptually tight as he has intertwined it with its generating impulse—the landscape. Walks have become less rigid in structure as he has turned from formal to natural yardsticks.

Earlier walks, such as the concentric circles, the grid, or the many straight lines, skirt the issue of how one executes such a project accurately on natural terrain. On maps they can, of course, be diagrammed precisely, but on foot this would be impossible. More recently, however, Long has been drawing the structure of his pieces from geography instead of geometry/focusing especially on rivers. The choice is particularly suited to the cogency of his thinking, since rivers are also lines; they mark on, and in a sense “structure” the landscape. (The landscape also determines the course of the rivers, much as it influences the direction of Long’s art.)

The Avon has provided the impetus for several recent works, among them A Walk of the Same Length as the River Avon. There is no difficulty here about rendering straight lines or perfect curves. The Avon “walks” from its source to its mouth; Long walks the same distance, not along the river itself, but on an ancient road that follows it. At one point the road crosses the river; a photograph of a footbridge, along with maps of the river and the road, become the evidence.

Another recent river work has a slightly different inflection, but is just as harmonious conceptually. In 130 Miles from the Source to the Sea, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, 1978, Long placed a pile of 130 stones at the source of the River Clyde, furnishing on his return a photograph of the pile of stones, duly labeled. Again the gesture is entirely suited to the circumstance; concept and method remain inextricable. Long’s work has always been extremely economical, but the recent pieces seem particularly well resolved.

For an art that gives us so little to go on, Long’s work is surprisingly rewarding. There is an element of romance in our knowledge that it is, for the most part, unattainable. Or is it? There is no law against pushing our imagination; it can become our passage to England, our Himalayan trek. We can negotiate our own progress through space and time as surely as Long can. That’s where walking comes in.

On one of this walks, Long went around a mountain range in Ireland—Macgillicuddy’s Reeks—throwing a stone. Anyone who does this knows. As you start out your eye scans the roadside for the right stone. You find one and give it a toss; it skitters along and rolls to a stop some yards ahead. Eye fixed on it to make sure you don’t lose track of it among the others, you catch up to it, toss it again. Before you know it, you have become very attached to that stone. It structures your walk; you go where it goes.


The soul of a journey is liberty, perfect liberty, to
think, feel, do just as one pleases. We go a journey
chiefly to be free of all impediments and of all
inconveniences; to leave ourselves behind, much
more to get rid of others.
—William Hazlitt,
On Going a Journey

In climbing, the summit is nearly always hidden,
and nothing but a track will save you from false
journeys. In descent it alone will save you a
precipice or an unfordable stream. It knows upon
which side an obstacle can be passed . . . and
where there is the best going. . . . It will find what
nothing but long experiment can find for an
individual traveller . . . everywhere The Road,
especially the very early Road, is wiser than it
seems to be.
—Hilaire Belloc,
The Old Road

. . . de Selby makes the point that a good road will
have character and a certain air of destiny, an
indefinable intimation that it is going somewhere,
be it east or west, and not coming back from there.
If you go with such a road, he thinks, it will give
you pleasant traveling, fine sights at every corner
and a gentle ease of peregrination that will
persuade you that you are walking forever on
falling ground. But if you go east on a road that is
on its way west, you will marvel at the unfailing
bleakness of every prospect and the great number
of sore-footed inclines that confront you to make
you tired.
—Flann O’Brien,
The Third Policeman

It is not indifferent to us which way we walk. There
is a right way; but we are very liable from
heedlessness and stupidity to take the wrong one.
We would fain take that walk, never yet taken by us
through this actual world, which is perfectly
symbolical of the path which we love to travel in
the interior and ideal world; and sometimes, no
doubt, we find it difficult to choose our direction,
because it does not yet exist distinctly in our idea.
—Henry David Thoreau,

A walking tour should be gone upon alone,
because freedom is of the essence; because you
should be able to stop and go on/and follow this
way or that, as the freak takes you; . . . you must
be open to all impressions, and let your thoughts
take colour from what you see. You should be as a
pipe for any wind to play on.
—Robert Louis Stevenson,
Walking Tours

Nancy Foote is an art critic.



With all ephemeral art, documentation becomes of major importance. It takes several forms in Richard Long’s work: photographs and maps framed together with text; photographs and text presented in books (often published by museums and galleries at the artist’s request instead of conventional catalogues); and artists’ books. Much of Long’s documentation wavers between “primary” and “secondary” information—the work itself versus a reproduction of that work. Photographs of site sculptures would normally fall into the second category, but as Long presents them, with laconic captions, they become, in a sense, primary. His interest in “art” photography is minimal, unlike that of his friend and sometime walking companion Hamish Fulton, whose images, though related to Long’s in concept, are much more self-consciously concerned with photography. In addition to strict recording, Long sometimes uses a photograph to stake an esthetic claim, as when he takes a spot of conceptual interest, such as the source of a river that generates a walk. And in books such as A Hundred Stones; One Mile Between First and Last, the photographs are, in a sense, primary because they gather the stones into a single work.