Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Richard Long, finally

Most of the exhibitions we liked best in London were serendipitous: Medals of Dishonor, which we found much more interesting than the lovely Indian paintings we intended to see, or the J.W. Waterhouse show at the Royal Academy that we decided to see because of its intriguing review in the Financial Times, or the Classified exhibition at the Tate Britain, which we’re still talking about. The idea of Classification as an exhibition concept has more “legs” than the other “concept” exhibitions that were all over London and Venice this summer, and some of the objects in that show were definitely memorable.

But Richard Long was one exhibition I was determined to see. In 1996, the first time I visited Japan, there was a Richard Long exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto. I visited it on the next to last day of my trip, which had started with a visit to Ryoan-ji and had included a huge number of temples and important artistic sites, always guided by a knowledgeable graduate student, professor, or curator. I was there at the behest of my friend and host Fukushima Keido, the head abbot of the Tofuku-ji Zen sect. I hadn’t thought much of Ryoan-ji and had puzzled over why a gathering of dry rocks and raked gravel could be so important. The Richard Long exhibition included several of his circles of rocks, which looked like they must have been influenced by Zen gardens, although I didn’t really think he really was involved in Zen. The circles both fit in and had extra meaning in Kyoto and whenever I see his circles now I think of Japanese Buddhism.

Then I came upon a print, just text as I recall: “An eleven day walk through the hills north of Kyoto, starting and ending looking at the same rock at Ryoan-ji,” or something like that. My trip lasted about eleven days and, influenced by Long’s print, I decided to return to Ryoan-ji on the last day. It was overwhelming, profound, beautiful, evocative of everything Zen Buddhism was about. Somehow after being in the culture for ten days and after being nudged by Richard Long, I found that I was able to experience a Zen garden completely differently from the way I had seen it on my first visit.* So I owe Richard Long a huge art debt.

The exhibition at the Tate, Richard Long: Heaven and Earth is very large and really focuses on Long’s walks, all kinds of walks, from the first one documented with a photograph of a line trampled through tall grass to extended complicated multiple walks and sea-to-sea treks. Each was documented in some way: by a photograph of an intervention in the landscape (a row of stones, a trail, some cairns), a map marked with the journey, or just a poetic description of the walk or the things observed on the walk. Some of the descriptions were printed on paper and some were directly stenciled on the walls. Primed by that Kyoto image, I kept imagining the artist moving through the landscape, perhaps modifying it or just documenting his experience, and I was vicariously moving with him and at the same time marveling at his stamina and ability to make variations on the theme of walking. The idea of him moving through space, occupying space in a transitional way, was very exciting: walking and travel making conceptual sculpture.

The next day I took Tom to the Tate Britain to see the exhibition and discovered that there is another way to see Long’s work. “So I could go out on my tractor and mow the farm and call it art?” he asked. I tried to explain that yes he could, if he called it art and did it repeatedly, consistently, and with variations that might have meaning, but he would have none of it. Walking was no different than mowing the farm and it did not reverberate with anything in his experience.

Granted, after a while the descriptions began to be tiring and the longer, larger ones began to resemble poetry rather than sculpture, so that some of the work became possibly self-indulgent, although the videos of Long himself show someone who appears to be totally abstemious.

One large gallery of the exhibition included a few of Long’s stone circles and other geometric forms and Tom did like those. He was the one who noticed the outlines on the floor that must have guided the artist in laying out the circles (He always finds the distracting details.) He was not impressed with Long’s mud drawings, which were much more engaging to me when I learned that Long digs the mud at low tide from the river near where he lives and considers the wall images to be sculpture rather than drawing or painting. Again the images trace the movements of a person, an action painting concept, but considered from the point of view of a sculptor.

Finally, we watched the video of Long, self effacing, committed, doing what he does because it makes sense to him, and having committed himself for decades to making and documenting walks as sculpture and as art. We’re the same age. And he’s from Bristol, where our art journey this summer began.

The Tate Britain has an excellent web site for this exhibition, showing many of the works, with their labels as explanations by Long of his work and his interests.

*When I returned from Japan, I inquired about purchasing the Kyoto text piece and was stunned that it cost $20,000. It was not in the Tate exhibition, but it is on his web site.

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