New York

Richard Long

An interesting aspect of Richard Long’s work, at least at this point in history, is how we believe him. When he says that he walked here or there and climbed this or that mountain in so many days, we take him at his word. No one ever questions whether or not he actually walked; how do we know he didn’t cheat, by driving or flying? Was he even there? Someone else could have taken his Lapland snaps. How do we know the granite is from California?

\It’s possible to see the Long persona, constantly on the move, as a fugitive—if not from justice, then from guilt. Unlike many other performance artists, Long performs without witnesses. Although his “evidence” would hardly stand up in a court of law (it isn’t even circumstantial), the transparency of his art, its scrupulous correctness, emits a kind of anxiety to prove innocence. The documentary nature of Long’s gallery presentations provides not so much an alibi for him as an accounting of his whereabouts and the little mischief he has gotten into (practically no mischief at all—the re-arranging of a few sticks and stones, certainly not the crime of Art). It is as if he has deliberately put himself under surveillance. Besides, Long has no suspect motive: these are not teleological walks—no reason is given why one route is chosen rather than another.

\At the same time that this latest compilation showed Long busy proving his whereabouts, fingerprinting himself all over the gallery walls, it slyly hinted that he had eluded us after all. In Twelve Hours, Twelve Summits, 1983, we are led to understand that Long spent an hour on each of twelve peaks during a five-day westward walk in the Scottish Highlands. Yet the “proof” is a map on which each of the summits is marked with the words “one hour.” What one sees is a simultaneous occupation of these heights; everywhere at once, Long is the demn’d elusive Pimpernel. (Is he in heaven, is he in hell?) Although it is not at the twelfth hour that Long occupies his mountains, there’s an insinuation of magical drama in the number twelve. And while the disturbance he makes in the natural world is minimal, it is presented as if it were maximal: photographs of the marks of water thrown on the ground and of the body imprint left in a patch of snow, in A Lappland Walk, 1983, loom as large as the sudden vertical climax to the low horizon of mud that runs along the edge of the gallery floor in the Throwing Muddy Water pieces, 1984. Every act is an event, an almost messianic intervention in history. Mountains and holy men go together, but is Long’s mask that of a spiritualist or a charlatan?

We have always chosen to read Long’s actions as those of the former because the honor system is one of the conventions of documentation art. We barter a bit of fame to get innocence in return. If Long, acting as a surrogate nature-lover for his city-bound audience, hasn’t lived up to his end of the bargain, the audience is cheated of its experience, But the audience never really has that experience, which remains vicarious, regardless of Long’s trustworthiness. So the more pressing reason for our faith must have to do with the way in which his work, taken literally and not ironically, allows us to believe that art can be nontransgressive. Not only does such a view propose the integrity of the artist, it asks us to forget the polluting, repressive, sexist, racist force art has so often been.

Jeanne Silverthorne