Review: Richard Long: Time and Space, Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol

Travelling man is going round in circles

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The Independent Culture

Richard Long, land artist, has been walking and walking, ceaselessly, for more than half a century. Walking is the basis of his practice as an artist. He takes long walks – in Bolivia, Egypt or Peru, for example – or relatively short walks. Some terrains he has walked again and again: Dartmoor, for example. Much of his art is impermanent. He makes stone circles or lines, and nature blows them away. We know that they once existed because Long photographs them. He uses materials local to the places that he traverses: stone, wood, mud. His touch, generally speaking, is fairly gentle. Unlike some American land artists, he does not engage in vast and bruising acts of physical displacement. He is a little too reverential to play such games. All this take place in the open air, of course.

What sort of thing happens when he shows in a gallery? This exhibition of his work at the Arnolfini in Bristol – appropriately sited because Long  himself is a Bristolian – is not exactly a retrospective, though it does encompass all five major gallery spaces. It is a choice of some of his favourite pieces. Three kinds of works are exhibited here: text works; photographs, usually of works in  the landscape, which incorporate a modicum of text (seldom much); a large wall piece fashioned from Avon mud; and, engulfing the entire floor of Gallery 3, a Greek cross assembled from hefty slivers  of Cornish slate.

Long’s text works are usually pithy things, set in the typeface he favours most: Gill. They are short descriptive narratives, often quite baldly factual, telling us when and where he went and how long it took him. Some of the letters are in colour, which adds a bit of spice. One or two of the texts reveal the ideas behind the walks. Red Walk, for example, is all about seeing red things  in the landscape as you bowl or brood along. The bright idea for it came from staring at  a Japanese maple. So the sequence of words is quite oddly interesting: berries, blood of  a thrush, for example.

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Is this not, in truth, aspiring towards the condition of poetry and almost getting there? Very often these texts works strike the onlooker as mind-numbingly banal. Of course, we are very pleased that he went, but how exactly should we be responding to such bald records on a wall? Mildly unenthusiastically.

A tad more interesting  is the large Greek cross made from slate. Long  has made many crosses  in his time, and such  objects cause us  to wonder about the mystery behind the making of such things, the resonance of a cross or a line or circle as a symbol of life’s longevity, brevity, tragic circularity etc etc.

The tragedy is that you don’t really feel much about Long’s practice, other than that it perhaps vaguely inclines towards self-reverence and the shamanistic. In fact, by the end of the show I was beginning to wonder whether he might not in fact be the latest embodiment of the Severn Bore.

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