The idea for Richard Long that the world was once undisturbed remains deep and powerful. A world before archaeology, before maps, before human sounds and shapes. A time when there was pure geology; when there were bird sounds and loose stones and forest and water, when history came in the form of clouds and rain, and social change came from a clear sky and the beginnings of a twisted pathway.
Long, who was born in 1945 and lives near Bristol, wants the world as it is and he wants to make the world. He begins by walking in the landscape. This, for him, is a hugely powerful intervention, simply this presence. Then he may make a circle or a line using stone, or he may walk back and forth, thus leaving a sign, as a sculptor will leave a mark on wood or metal. He will photograph what he has done. Later, he will often write text on printed photographs, and the text will seem like another sort of mark rather than a mere explanation.
He is as fascinated by water, or by emptiness, as he is by stone or land. His work in mud in a gallery is often stunning in its beauty and its stark simplicity. He has a way of making you look at what is elemental and what he has shaped which means that the way he creates gallery space is as interesting as the way he makes books or outdoor work.
Long’s art has gently accepted the intense majesty and dark persistence of the world. He has asked merely for the small mercy of the light and for the camera’s eager and unhurting intervention. He plays a game then between our mysterious need to make shapes and to create forms in the world and the possibility that we may in the end leave only vague traces of ourselves behind.
We have to imagine what it would be like to walk in his wake; a day later, a week, a year, a century. The tracks he leaves can exist purely in the imagination for miles on end, he has made something by an act of will and witness, by simply being here, by announcing later that he has passed. He can bathe iconic forms in the mysterious liquid of ambiguity, the style deliberate and intense, but allowing always for the easy and generous fact that what is left on the surface of the earth can be easily overgrown or kicked aside.
There remains something heroic in Long’s way of making art out of solitary splendour, out of the simple fact of being alone. The eye itself is intrusion, intervention. I love the decisions made in Long’s art, the watching and waiting, the play between the jagged and the symmetrical, the tension between the random footfall and the deliberate planning of a journey by foot, the counting and the countless.
Richard Long wants both context and text, a world untouched except by pathways and rights of way, so that he can move freely and plan freely and imagine at his ease, and then with the same zeal he also wants magic, sacred space which he is willing to create should the need arise in a place of his choosing.
Anyone who spends time at Long’s show in Tate Britain will come to understand that, because of the power of his vision and the strength of what he makes, if Richard Long ran the NHS, we would all be cured.