Friday, 10 July 2009

Richard Long at Tate Britain

Richard Long ‘Heaven & Earth’
Tate Britain, 3 June – 6 September 2009

Upon entering the exhibition space, one faces a massive, pristine, white-painted gallery wall, smeared with swirls of what turns out to be clay. It’s like a Pollock splash-painting but with patterns which are easier to follow, employing more obviously regular, recurring forms, though spread over such a space that there is a sense of teeming excess similar to Pollock. Entitled ‘From Beginning to End’, this is actually one of Long’s more ‘traditional works’, in that it was created specifically for a gallery space. As is well known, he’s an artist best known for ‘land art’, in which he takes long treks through rugged and mostly deserted terrain, re-arranging rocks and leaves, sticks and stones, into structures and patterns, taking all his material from what is to hand, knowing that it will be taken back again, that the art-works will collapse back into the landscape. Sometimes, the walks themselves constitute the ‘art-work,’ recorded through maps and photographs: Long describes his art as “the essence of my experience, not a representation of it.”

Which must have made curating the exhibition an odd business: Long’s interest in ephemerality goes against the very function of a museum or gallery: to preserve, to keep in a fixed, unchanging state (‘no touching’, ‘keep your distance’). Many of the rooms therefore feature Long’s textual records of his experiences, printed on the walls, in large bold font. For instance: “the mountainside in torrents/ summit shrine in cloud.” All that remains of pieces like this, then, is an idea, a trace – indeed, a ‘representation’ or record, exactly that which Long claims to be avoiding. Perhaps he would claim that these records – the photographs, the maps, the words – are not the actual art-works themselves, and, in that case, one might wonder at the fact that they take up half the exhibition space. On the other hand, it’s hard to see what else one could do to preserve a work of this perishable nature, and a trace is better than nothing at all.

There are some gallery-specific works as well, I hasten to add: the aforementioned ‘From Beginning to End’, and a few more large-scale pieces, taking up whole walls and building up patterns of mud and clay over dark painted backgrounds. The two pieces which give the exhibition its title face each other on opposite walls: based around characters from the ancient Chinese ‘I Ching’ (Book of Changes) which are suspended between writing and pictorial depiction, they are made from River Avon mud, thus constituting an attempt to fuse the local with other localities – to find cross-national similarities between natural phenomena and (perhaps less so) human reaction to them.

Such ideas are fascinating, but there’s something a little uncomfortable about the way in which the work is forced to change by being forced indoors. Long himself is on the defensive, claiming that he wishes to restore the experience of tactility, of physical experience, which is lost in those ‘works’ which are only preserved through photographs and words – an attempt, perhaps, to move away from contexts which are necessarily focussed solely on the individual and their experience. The problem is that the works lose their transience: it’s a completely different thing to come across Long’s patterned arrangements of stone when they have to be treated with respectful distance, and it seems somewhat odd to stress tactility when one isn’t actually allowed to touch the works.

I suppose that’s not really Long’s fault: after all, his major work hasn’t been gallery-based (though the fact that he’s regarded as an important artist is precisely because of the non-ephemeral records of his work: photographs, texts, gallery retrospectives). Richard Cork wrote in 1981 that “Long cuts himself off from all avoidable contact with other people – and from the urban centres where they congregate – so that he can regain at least a semblance of the relationship man used to have with the earth.” In a sense this is a radical nostalgia, but in another sense Long remains merely an adventurous hiker, perhaps one with greater stamina and will-power than most, but a hiker nonetheless.

The hermeticism is potentially interesting, but Cork’s idealised conception of the artist actually distorts the much-trumpeted ‘relationship with the earth.’ OK, the shaman who, as Theodore Roszak suggests, may have been the original artist (prophet, poet, musician, leader), was in some way ‘apart’ from the rest of the community: an ordained figure, entering into higher communication with spiritual forces denied to the ‘layman’ – but at the same time his prophecies and trances related to the community. I’m not suggesting that the artist should be our social prophet – I’m not sure that art (always? ever?) has that power– but Long’s isolation does seem to me a historical distortion.

This is not merely because he has had the ‘primitive’, return-to-origins tag forced upon him. On the contrary, he employs it in his own writings: “human mark-making with what is to hand”; “instinctive spontaneous primitive mark-making.” In this kind of discourse he also suggests an accidental nature to his work, access to something that manifests itself without having been consciously formulated or planned. One might view his re-arrangements of natural objects as improvisatory art-works, whose making is of the same transience as the ‘finished’ piece – which is never finished, because it will be eroded or blown away or snow-covered, eventually destroyed, indistinguishable from the landscape out of which it was temporarily made to stand out as some kind of marker.

Yet this is essentially a mystification of human impulses as something we can, if not understand, at least access on some pre-social level. Even if we do believe that such impulses lay behind the earliest forms of art – which may have been arrangements of natural objects just like Long’s – to believe that a twentieth-century man can tap into the same kind of relation is to ignore the entire history of socio-historical development since. We may soon be forced into a new kind of relation with the earth, driven to abandon our life-style dependence on the large-scale exploitation of natural resources by danger of global catastrophe, but it will not be one where we are simply free to wander the “road less-travelled” and take photographs of our exploits to hang in pristine galleries. In that sense, fascinating though this exhibition is, Long’s entire aesthetic appears suspect.

(The first half of this review was originally published in the arts supplement of 'The Cambridge Student', May Week Edition)

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