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A Quiet Reordering of Nature

IF Richard Long's art has mystique, it is not because this is his intention. Simple, plain statement is his way:* A black and white photograph is captioned STONES IN THE PYRENEES FRANCE 1986. And that, the viewer accepts, is what the photograph shows. * A page in a book or a sheet of paper on a wall has words printed in capitals on it, like this one-liner: TEN DAYS WALKING AND SLEEPING ON NATURAL GROUND * Lying on the polished floor of a major public art gallery in London is a round, exact-edged placement of Cornwall slate in rough-cut random natural shapes. * On a large white wall in the museum of contemporary art in Bordeaux, France, a large black circle is splattered by a swirling surface of ocher- colored mud. Even if Long does not choose to complicate the way in which he presents his art with anything remotely approaching overstatement, the viewer's imagination is, conversely, almost set loose by the astonishing amount of information not given. If Long chooses words as witness and record of a walk - and walking is the central activity out of which his art springs - then they are generally as selectively potent as those of a Japanese haiku, though there can be more of them than in those laconic, concentrated p oems. Long's use of words is to place statement after statement just as he follows one stride with the next when he walks. If poetry emerges, it is not because he has set out to write poetry. He clearly aims to boil down experiences to stringently chosen sequential essentials. He is antiromantic, that's clear. His clipped phrases, noting, for example, things seen on a walk, are like notes in a private diary; memory jottings. Oddly, these notations can be as powerfully evocative for the outsider as, presumably, they are for him. They seem to bring together the universal and the particular, without pretense. ... CATKINS UNDER A SCOTS PINE A FIELD OF BLEATING SHEEP BENEATH A ROOKERY OF SEVEN NESTS FLAT DRY PATCHES OF MUD ON A SCRATCHED ROAD A CRUSHED STICK A PIECE OF ORANGE STRING A POTHOLE HORSESHOE PRINTS IN SANDY GROUND .... The apparent ordinariness of such notes, though given a certain significance by their presentation as "art," is belied by the not-so-ordinary questions they prompt. First, what do scots pine catkins specifically look like? What color are they? Why were the sheep bleating - was it the result of an intrusion? By Richard Long? And was he alone? Why, anyway, do sheep bleat? We also have no idea if it was raining, misty, a drought, a Tuesday or a Thursday, evening or morning. A journalist, a naturalist, an ag riculturalist, a dramatist, a private detective might ask such questions - and even another artist. But not the artist Richard Long. LIKE any worthwhile artist, Long's work has to be taken in its developing wholeness. It is a buildup of clues, for him as well as us, a gradual disclosure of what it is he feels about himself and the natural world. His art is like a jigsaw self-portrait, though, almost ironically, it is his ubiquitous figure that is always invisible. It is his trace that is seen or recorded. He has come and gone. But always there is a restraint, a holding back of vast quantities of information which he presumably decides is irrelevant. Though persistently true to his basic notion of an art that doesn't impose itself too forcefully on nature, but quietly reorders some of its smaller phenomena (rocks as often as not) in a modest "I was here" kind of way, he has allowed it to grow within the limits of his decisions. The "pieces" he makes (in interviews he sticks to the usual words associated with sculpture and art-making, however inappropriate they really are to his work) in natural settings - frequently in bleakly isolated spots - have generally been either "lines" or "circles" on the ground. Both are symbols of movement. The latest book presenting his work is subtitled "Walking In Circles," and it is impossible to avoid the echo in those words of that idiom of pointlessness "just going round in circles." Art has no "point"; it is what it is. In the interview with Richard Cork at the end of this book, this exchange takes place: Cork: Why do you think you do go out to these remote places again and again? Is it bound up with establishing and developing an increasingly close relationship with nature?" Long: "I have no idea really. I have never had any ideology or fixed ideas... ." Pressed further, Long admits: "I think it's just the choice I've made for myself. I do things that have a deep meaning for me. I have the most sublime or profound feelings when I am walking, or touching natural materials in natural places. That is what I've decided to do and that is what I am showing you in my art." Long is no explainer. And yet, in his own terms, explaining is the attempt underlying what he does and what he makes. Some of his gallery works are made up of foot or hand prints in mud. The contact with the primeval ground, the firm but surface-deep imprint made on it by the passage of a life, the touching that is only movement over rather than forceful impact upon - these are the understated symbols of Richard Long's art. The foot and hand prints are washed off, the traces painted over. The lines and circles of rocks on immaculate gallery floors are lifted, stored, reassembled perhaps later. The rings of standing stones in mountainous regions still stand, possibly, but are subject to the ravages of time and climate. Footprints on grass or snow are photographed before they vanish. Long moves between the permanent and the impermanent, suggesting that "art" is only a branch of nature's mixture of coming and going and staying put.