Art In Conversation
RICHARD LONG with Robert C. Morgan
“Every walk is a different idea, a different experience, and a different memory”
The proposal to do some form of interview with Richard Long came into being during an afternoon visit at the Lisson Gallery on March 10th. I was there to see the other half of Long’s two-gallery undertaking, which included the two most prominent galleries to show the artist’s work from the beginning: Sperone Westwater and Lisson Gallery. Mud, rocks, stones, wall texts, wood, and photographs were discretely present throughout the exhibition. Each material revealed its own structural idea that ultimately related to the artist’s ongoing walks in wilderness areas removed from urban congestion. By the time I saw the Lisson installation, Long had already returned to the UK. Through the unobtrusive guidance of Benjamin Clarke, contact was made with the artist who suggested I send him a list of questions to which he would respond. The results of this negotiation can be found in the text below.
Robert C. Morgan (Rail): How do you define yourself as an artist? Does your work always involve an idea? If so, do you use natural materials as a means to clarify the idea?
Richard Long: I was born an artist. As a very young child, I made mud pies and, in each school growing up, I was always the “school artist.” So now, I’m an artist because it’s my language. My work, in all its forms, is always stimulating and a pleasure to make. And also, it is the only thing I am good at.
It’s always about an idea, which is realised by making it, in one way or another. It is logical and most practical to use the natural materials of each place to make a sculpture. As I have previously said, I like stones because “they are what the world is made of,” which means I can find them almost anywhere, which gives me the freedom to potentially make art anywhere I am.
Rail: What is the philosophical origin of the straight line in your work?
Long: There is no philosophical origin. Like the circle, the first time I made a straight line, it seemed like a good idea at the time.” I recognized its simplicity and power as metaphor: a timeline, a life-line. Also, like a circle, it is universal, not something invented or belonging to me. A line is also the easiest thing to make in the landscape, by aligning one thing to another.
Rail: You have referred to time and space in your text pieces. Do you recognize these entities as being symbolically represented when you construct straight lines and circles at various wilderness sites?
Long: The text works are mostly narratives of my walks. When walking became a medium to make art, time became the fourth dimension and space became distance. I was interested in greatly expanding the scale of a work of art. However, there is no symbolism in my lines and circles.
Rail: When did you first decide to move your straight lines and circles into architecture in contrast to making them directly on site? Do you feel any difference between the works you construct on site with those laced in interior spaces of major institutions?
Long: I have always made work inside as well as outside, like my first gallery exhibitions. I am the same artist, working in different and complementary ways. It is not either-or. I like the freedom I have won to make art in either remote places or in a city museum. It’s just different ways to put my work in the world—one solitary for the imagination, one public for the senses.
Rail: How do you feel when you are walking through the Sahara as compared with climbing in the Himalayas or Mt. Fuji?
Long: I love both and I savor the difference between mountains and deserts. I am amazed I have been able to use the experiences of both in my work.
Rail: What is the difference between walking in Dartmoor (UK) in comparison with climbing the Adirondacks in the northeast USA?
Long: Dartmoor was my local, prototype landscape—treeless moorland, very practical for my first formal walks. Then, I expanded into other, much bigger landscapes in the world, like East Africa or Alaska. However, some things are universal: a stony footpath is a stony footpath. And, I remember in the Adirondacks there were no European brambles or stinging nettles and I met a black bear.
Rail: Why are photographs important in your work? Do you see them primarily as documents or do they represent other concerns as well?
Long: Photographs are important because they are the means to bring the images of my remote sculptures into the public domain. I want to show you what I have done. Often a work could disappear, or not be seen by anyone else. So, the photo records and also becomes art in a different, independent way.
Rail: In Muddy Heaven, (Sperone Westwater, March 2020) did you conceive of this entirely from the hexagrams in the I Ching? How do you feel about the gestural imprint of your fingers? The trace seems important for you.
Long: Yes. The I Ching hexagrams are powerful, abstract images floating between art, meaning, and symbols, but they are not language. The gestural marks of my hand are important because my energy and speed make the splashes and watery “run-downs.” I make one part of the work and nature (gravity) makes the other part. Both parts have cosmic, unrepeatable variety in the micro-scale.
Rail: Do you consider your mud works on the wall a form of painting? Calligraphy? A form of writing script?
Long: No, they are wall works, not painting. (I consider painting to be done with a brush).
Rail: Some believe that your interest in Eastern thought came by way of your interest in the work of the avant-garde composer, John Cage. Is this true, or partially the case?
Long: John Cage was very influential to me as a young art student in London. He was a man of ideas. I also had a young tutor in Bristol before I went to Saint Martins—John Epstein, who was running a course about “Nothing.”
Rail: How long did it take you to gather the slate you used in the Virginia slate piece in the current Lisson exhibition in New York? Why is this material important for you?
Long: The slate was ordered according to my instructions. It had to be similar to the slate I have been using from my local quarry in Cornwall for the last 50 years. It is just standard paving but it looks good, and it is practical, as it can be picked up and placed by hand, and it has good coverage.
Rail: You have often returned to sites where you have walked previously. Is it always the same direction or does this vary? Can you give an interesting example?
Long: I could say the whole of the Dartmoor plateau is now the site of many walks of the past 52 years, criss-crossing and overlapping in time and space. Every walk is a different idea, a different experience, and a different memory.