Nicholas Serota: How Long's artwork changed our world

Richard Long's 'A Line Made by Walking' captures the experience of being alone on this earth

In A Line Made by Walking (1967), a work made at the age of 22, Richard Long changed our notion of sculpture and gave new meaning to an activity as old as man himself. Nothing in the history of art quite prepares us for the originality of his action. It is personal yet abstract, gestural yet conforming to the most basic of marks, set in rural England yet somehow universal and speaking to the world.

In the subsequent decades, Long has been exploring the implications of that first work, steadily but almost imperceptibly extending the range and method of his practice. It is only in an exhibition as extensive as this that we can begin to appreciate just how broad and deep his subject has become.

Richard Long has been walking for 40 years, touching the earth lightly, and rarely crossing an earlier path. The realignment of scattered stones, the rearrangement of timber or brushwood found in the landscape, a path trodden in the dust, or water poured on a rock, are signs of a human intervention, often in a timeless wilderness. However, his sculpture in a landscape is not an end in itself. It is recorded in a photograph – which is a testament to his presence, but also an image that stands for the whole experience of a walk.

The making of the sculpture may occupy only half an hour within a walk that lasts for days or weeks. Familiarity with his work has encouraged us to accept this rather unusual convention. However, questions remain. Why do we accept a photograph of a sculpture made in the landscape as a surrogate for the experience of the whole walk?

We now know from other works, as we did not early on in his career, that Long often records the conditions of wind, sound and light and observes incidental details which catch his eye as he walks. If he records these in notebooks, none has ever been exhibited. If he memorises, how does he remember the sequence and how are the lists pared down and edited on his return?

The more we think about the form of his activity, the more we realise how many decisions he makes in realising each work. Every piece is the product of a very deliberate series of choices: the location, duration, length and season of the walk, the "rules" that he sets himself, the choice of words, texts and indeed the decision to make a cross here, a line there or a circle in another place. Are these choices pre-planned or a spontaneous reaction to the circumstances, the view or the mood? Are there several sculptures made on a single walk, only one of which eventually survives as a photograph?

I raise these questions – and there are many more – simply because I want to draw attention to the complexity, depth, nuance and cumulative richness of Long's art. Superficially, the work of recent years may look like the work he was making 40 years ago. However, the very steadiness of his evolution has made it easy for us to overlook the extent of his development.

Long has chosen some awesome places both to traverse and in which to leave a mark, but he has also elevated the significance of places and sights that we take for granted: the crossing place of road and river, the passing of a bird in flight. His observations of the weather, animals and plants encountered on a journey have become a more insistent strain in his work. Occasionally there is an oblique reference to other human activity, but usually Long captures the experience of being alone in a world governed by the passage of the Sun and the cycles of nature.

The compass of man is nevertheless ever-present in his work. The steady endurance of the walker and the sometimes astonishing distances recorded over days and weeks is daunting. We may also observe the way in which Long's own body has gradually become ever more clearly the instrument of his work. The body has always been implicit with its weight and passage expressed through the trodden grass in A Line Made by Walking or the straight path beaten in the dust of the Peruvian desert in Walking a Line in Peru (1972). It is also present in the latent energy of the upright stones placed in numerous uplands worldwide, or in the jagged arrangements of upturned stones seen in some of his recent gallery sculptures.

These are all arrangements of material made by the effort and will of a determined and muscular being. However, the development of Long's wall and floorworks in River Avon mud and Cornish china clay has brought his own physical scale, reach and energy more directly into the work, just as it did for Pollock in his "drip" paintings and Serra in his sculpture Splashing. The simple prints made with the foot and hand have evolved to include a huge repertoire of gestural marks made with a movement and rhythm that extends to the full range of the body. To watch him making a water line in the gallery, or to look at photographs of him splashing mud on a massive wall in movements that are spontaneous within defined co-ordinates, is to view an artist who is totally in tune with his own body, like any highly trained dancer.

Long's work has conventionally been linked to a tradition of English engagement with landscape and nature. But his peers, such as Carl Andre, have always regarded him as an "international" artist, both in his reputation and in his outlook. His work was recognised in exhibitions in museums and galleries abroad well ahead of his first significant shows in England.

Furthermore, Long's journeys across the continents have taken him well beyond the tradition of the genius loci who captures the air and spirit of a given place. No other artist, apart possibly from his friend Hamish Fulton, has roamed quite so wide, recording journeys across uplands, deserts and icy wastes, along streams, rivers, across lakes and from ocean to ocean. The simplicity and economy of his work stands comparison with the marks and elemental sculpture of ancient peoples, but the form, language and meaning of his work is rooted in the contemporary world. His works are timeless in their classic rhythm and beauty, but also particular to this moment. Few artists make us more aware of both the power and the fragility of the earth or, indeed, our own brief passage across its face.

Sir Nicholas Serota is director of the Tate

'Richard Long: Heaven and Earth' is at Tate Britain from 3 June to 6 September. The catalogue accompanying the exhibition edited by Clarrie Wallis (Tate Publishing © Tate 2009), which will feature the extracts, is available £24.99 post-free from 020-7887 8869, tgpl@tate.org.uk. Exclusive two-for-one ticket offer for 'Independent' readers. Call 020-7887 8998 and quote "Independent Ticket Offer" until 8 July 2009

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness