The pictures you see here form not a work of art in themselves, but a documentary memory of an 11-day, 382-mile walk from Devon to Suffolk, coast to coast. The original impetus came from Jerry Sohn of the Children's Library Press in California, who asked Long to make a book which would resonate as much with children as adults. Over the last 30 years, Long has walked for his art on every continent apart from Antarctica, documenting the trips for galleries - sometimes with photographs, sometimes with sculptures, sometimes with both. Now established as one of Britain's leading contemporary artists, Long chose the south of England for this latest excursion because that is where he himself - born in Bristol in 1945 - grew up.
Unlike the once-trendy "land artists" of the US, Long intervenes only minimally and temporarily with the country through which he passes. It presumably was not he who killed the badger lying at the side of the road (squashed, by the looks of it, by a juggernaut) in the course of his English walk; though the thin line of urine in the picture captioned "Pee trickling across the road" might well once have belonged to the artist.
The words Long has chosen for his captions are simple and plain. And yet they lack the usual Janet-and-John children's-book stodge. Instead, they evoke that strange, ticklish sense of humour you often see in four- to six-year-olds, for whom the simplest things can be hilarious because they are new. You can almost hear a delighted swooping chant beginning as you look at the pictures captioned "Down..." and "...And Up" ("Just say it one more time, Dad, please). And as for the rivulet of urine which is "Pee trickling across the road" - well, as anyone who's been around small children will know...
Long's first perambulatory piece, A Line Made by Walking (1967), propelled him towards the top of the international art world while he was still a student at St Martins. "I had a very strong feeling that art ... could be about things like grass and clouds and water - natural phenomena, rather than just the slightly sterile, academic almost-mannerism of welding bits of metal together," he says. Walking, as one critic explains, "became a way to bring great distances into a work of art, of engaging the real space and shape of the world through direct physical commitment." Or, as Long himself puts it: "I hope to make work for the land, not against it." A relationship rich in mutual love, challenge and more than a little impish humour is apparent in every image of this book.
'A Walk Across England' is published by Thames & Hudson (pounds 18.95, out tomorrow).
MY EVENING SHADOW, AN EVENING DRINK, DOWN ... ... AND UP, COOLING MY FEET IN A RIVER, A FOOTPATH STILE, FOLLOWING A COW, A FAMILY OF HORSES, A COOL STREAM, A POTHOLE TO BE MENDED, THE END OF THE WALK, AT THE EDGE OF THE NORTH SEA, PEE TRICKLING ACROSS THE ROAD, MY LAST REST, A CLOUDLESS DAY