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Richard Long – The Time Of Space

Feature by James Haddrell

IN THE early 1960s, when the American art scene’s love affair with Jackson Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists was coming to an end, a small group of artists from New York took to the desert to the West of the city and started creating art from the materials they found there.

This was art on a grand scale, art that would welcome and even celebrate the daily battering of the elements, and most importantly, art that simply could not, either due to its fragility or its scale, be relocated to a gallery.

A new movement was being born, a movement which refused to allow its works to enter the gallery system, to be bought and sold like any other commodity – but nevertheless, this was a movement which, despite its determination to celebrate the natural world, still managed to epitomise grandstanding Americanism.

In England, Richard Long was finding his own uniquely English way to protect his works from the appropriation of the gallery and celebrate the natural landscape.

Where his American counterparts blasted holes in the desert, Long transported handfuls of earth from one place to another; where Robert Smithson built his famous spiral jetty from thousands of tonnes of rubble, Long made circles from pebbles, to be dispersed again once he had photographed them. Most importantly, aside from his whimsical monuments and subtle interventions in the landscape, Richard Long made art by walking – and 40 years later, he’s still at it.

The problem with this, putting aside the artistic philosophy of Long’s work, is the sense of exclusion that it creates for the viewer, the sense that it’s all really being done for no one but the artist himself. When the average Englishman takes a stroll on a Sunday afternoon, it would not cross his mind that he was making a piece of art, and neither would he consider that gallery visitors in a year’s time should give his ‘once around the park’ a second thought, but somehow we are to take Long’s journeys as just that.

Of course, Long’s walks are not quite as transient as your last Sunday constitutional, and despite that original drive to liberate art from the gallery, his continuing place in contemporary art is guaranteed by gallery exhibitions. However philosophically sound the drive to de-commoditise art really is, art lovers still can’t get over the desire to look at art.

Long’s latest London exhibition, The Time Of Space, on show at Haunch Of Venison until February 10, is as good a demonstration as any of the way in which he brings the experience of walking into the white cube.

Entering the gallery at ground level, a line of large photographs serve as monuments to recent walks. A cross scuffed into the desert sand commemorates a 15-day walk in South Africa; a circle of stones testifies to a similar trek in Galicia. Further into the exhibition panels of text, sometimes as brusque as single lines, sometimes more like stream of consciousness poems, refer to further walks, commenting on the weather, the sights along the way, the songs running through his head as he walks.

All this somehow succeeds in making his work simultaneously inspiring and frustrating. There is certainly something timeless, primal, about the simple forms created in remote locations, as if we are being given a glimpse of the past, when the only marks left upon the landscape were the transient monuments of nomadic tribes, but walking round the exhibition made me want to follow Long into the wilderness and walk, to see these incredible untouched landscapes for myself.

Looking at the photographs with their superimposed coloured titles is like looking at a display of exhibition posters for a series of exhibitions that you missed but wish you’d seen.

It is not all second hand photographs and text. Long also brings the outside world into the gallery in a more physical, immediate way. Towards the top of the gallery one room is dominated by a large spiral of wet China clay splashed directly onto the dark painted wall, filling the wall from end to end, while on the floor at its base an arc of large chunks of Sardinian Cork bark hold you away from the wall.

The texture of the bark undulates across the floor, throwing the lacquered wood-panelled floor into strange relief, forcing a comparison between the refined wood of the carpenter with the discarded bark of a giant tree. But still it makes you wish you were there. In Sardinia, faced with a carpet of bark, you would surely walk across it, touch it, wonder what was living underneath it. Long’s sculptural piece is more liable to make you yearn to be where he has been than consider its own artistic merits.

But then maybe Long’s art is not as alienating as it seems. Certainly, the enjoyment granted to the viewer by his second-hand records of nature cannot match the pleasure that he found in experiencing it at first hand, travelling for six days by kayak down the Columbia River or hiking in the mountains between Galicia and Portugal, but the depth of his own experience is never in doubt, the sense of communion achieved from a temporary interaction with the landscape is clear in his temporary monuments.

For Long, the authenticity of the work of art is not to be found in the photograph, the written word or even the landscape itself. It is only the experience of being out in the world which is really art, and in forcing us to feel a sense of alienation from his experiences, he encourages us to take to the hills ourselves, to leave the falsely contemplative confines of the art gallery and experience the natural world in all its glory.

By all means see the exhibition, discover what it is that has placed Long on the still relatively short list of Turner Prize winners, what has maintained his reputation for 40 years in the fickle, ever changing world of contemporary art, but then to really experience what Long is doing, dig out those walking boots and head out of town…

Picture caption: Richard Long: Installation view of River Avon Mud Slow Spiral

Richard Long
The Time Of Space
Until 10 February 2006
Haunch Of Venison, 6 Haunch Of Venison Yard, London W1K 5ES
020 7495 5050; www.haunchofvenison.com
Open Monday-Saturday: 10am-6pm; Thu until 7pm; Sat until 5pm
Admission: free