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Richard Long: Heaven and earth


Tate Britain 

Runs until September 6 2009 


In Nicholas Serota's words Richard Long, 'changed our notion of sculpture and gave new meaning to an activity as old as man himself'. Long was a student at St Martin's School of Art in the mid-1960s. His department proclaimed the gospel of conceptualism: artists must on no account accommodate their idea to the accepted categories of art-object. Rather, the mode of expression should be subject to the artists idea. Or, as Duchamp put it, 'Something is art because I say so'. 

To the 20-year-old Long this was like water to a parched man. But how was he to escape conventional sculpture? One day, he says, 'I took a train from Waterloo Station, found a field, made a line and went home'. The resultant photo, A Line Made By Walking (1967), is one of the iconic images of contemporary art. Long simply walked up and down until the grass was flattened and photographed the result. 'I wanted to use the landscape as an artist in new ways. First I started using natural materials like grass and water, and this led to the idea of making a sculpture by walking'. 

Long documents the walking theme in several ways. Sometimes by photography (such as A 100 Mile Walk Along a Straight Line in Australia (1977), complete with kangaroo), and sometimes with a diagram. But also in text works, an early example of which, A Straight Northward Walk Across Dartmoor (England 1979), betrays in its terse assembly of simple nouns, a kind of strangled poetry that becomes ever more insistent in later works.

The artist's other way of handling his subject is in an assembly of different-coloured slate, flint and basalt arranged on the gallery floor. This centrepiece of the exhibition has an austere beauty. But what is the relationship between the external activity and the aping of traditional sculpture when creating something in a gallery? For Long they are complementary: 'A sculpture feeds the senses at a place whereas a photograph or text feeds the imagination'. For some the duality illustrates the conflict between Long's pull towards a dying modernism - the idea that you can still express something significant via a monumental artwork - and the corresponding pull towards post-modernism, which decrees that nothing is of any lasting importance and the only option is relativism. 

This position figures in Long's later works, many of which are permeated with references to scientific notions like time and distance, but which turn out to be entirely subjective and relative to his experience. Hence Tide Walk (1992) English Channel To Bristol Channel - A Walk Of Two And A Half Tides Relative To The Walker. His walks become ever more ambitious, as in Transference (2003), a duplicated three-day walk in England and Japan. Here he sets up parallel experiences in his beloved Dartmoor and Chokai Mountain, and the poetry again breaks through, this time duplicated exactly on each walk.  

Eventually it reaches a monumental scale but despite these grandeurs Long claims, 'My work really is just about being a human being living on this planet and using nature as its source. I like the intellectual pleasure of original ideas and the physical pleasure of realising them'.  

As  a landscape artist (a term he says he is happy with), he's a long way from Turner and Constable, that's for sure. Can he, in any sense, be said to be a poet as surely they were? As is often the case with contemporary artists, it is really for us to make up our own minds. Undoubledly he unravels creation in a way few are privileged to do. And, there is no denying the importance to Richard Long of logos, the word. There is much for us to delight in here, whether or not we accept his underlying credentials.

Pat Harvey