New York

Richard Long

The pleasure and power of Richard Long’s work lies not only in the elegance of its execution but in the economy with which it condenses the cultural demands we make of landscape: the esthetic and the documentary (the evidence of “nature”), the romantic (solitude, wildness, transience), and the rational (order, harmony, permanence). In his photographs this is achieved without using the conventions of the picturesque; the scene is animated by the organization of materials. In his work, the inaccessible is brought, by analogy, into close visual alignment; horizontality is fore-grounded, placing us “in touch” with the substance and texture of what lies beneath the artist’s feet. The configurations within the images draw us upward and outward to a complementary natural feature in the distance, as in A Line in Scotland, 1981. However, the work is not simply topographical; its materials are the elements: earth, air, water, and, indirectly (through, for example, images of charred wood), fire. Light and time bind them into form (as well as being the enabling conditions of the photograph), as is beautifully realized in A Circle in Alaska, 1977: a solid circle of driftwood on a pebbled shore, its highlights echoed by shimmering water, its shadows reflected by a darkened sky.

The conceptual field of the work refers us to the difference between the real and its sign. In Western culture, nature does not exist in itself but as an ideological construct, subject to the organizing principles of knowledge. The further from intimate experience, the more abstract the signification becomes, so that whatever system is brought to bear on the landscape, it is in some way a colonization of it. Colonization is an act of displacement, and Long’s work is an art of displacement: a reordering of sticks and stones, a transport of material from outside to inside, a passage of the body in time and space, a shifting from map to terrain to further indexical sign: the photograph, the world map, the handprint. In Wind Line, 1985, changing air currents become directional arrows. In A Seven Day Circle of Ground, 1984, a map of place names and Long’s positions seems to take on the form of a sky chart. The map and the camera are the colonizer’s tools; the terrain has already been colonized, measured, and translated into a sign system according to the rules of cartography. Long re-marks the map with his own system of abstract drawings, sometimes imposing the form, sometimes allowing the topography to dictate its type and scale. But to impose one order of knowledge is usually to elide another, and Long’s work is ideologically inscribed despite its seeming neutrality. While it is true that the artist does not possess the terrain in any real sense (and his “interferences” are made without earthmovers), what we are given is something typically remote or sparsely vegetated, with all the appearance of an elemental space uncontaminated by the trace of humans, except that of the artist himself. Where the artist deviates from this structure, as in African Walk, 1978 (a photograph that includes a group of local people), the colonizing gaze momentarily reveals itself.

Nonetheless, there seems to be a Beckettian sense of humor at work in all the measuring and charting a Sisyphean absurdity in the physical labor. So many steps, miles, stones! A stone is moved so many steps in so many days toward each of the four compass points (Stone Steps Days, 1985); stones are picked up during a walk in England and displaced, in a walk of the same duration, in Wales (Heavier Slower Shorter. Lighter Faster Longer, 1983); and in the labyrinth of the English Midlands, Long walks A Thousand Miles A Thousand Hours, 1974, setting off at Bootle and arriving, in the center of his square spiral, at No Man’s Heath. Long’s work suggests a question: however many displacements one enacts, does one ever really leave, or find, a point of origin?

Jean Fisher