If you’re sick of modern life, Richard Long’s journeys through landscapes provide a perfect New Year detox, says Waldemar Januszczak
A super selection of new things by Long, at the elegant Haunch of Venison gallery, tucked in behind the expensively worthless designer emporiums of Bond Street, works for me in two ways. First, it is in itself a sensitive arrangement of lovely pieces, and is, therefore, in all the usual terms, a beautiful show: elegantly minimal, dotted with evocative sights. But as it’s the beginning of the year, and seeing how we search naturally at times like these for bigger meanings and greater resonances, the Long display strikes me also as an excellently effective antidote to pretty much all forms of contemporary toxicity.
Nobody in art has sought as strenuously to escape the rubbish tip of the modern urban experience, or tried so doggedly to walk his way back to reality, as dear old Long. Serious, hard-working, slow-burning, poetic, resonant, unsensational, unfashionable, uninterested in sex or clothes or money or celebrity or Jodie Marsh’s nose, in love with the landscape, obsessed with effort, bursting with affection for an old pair of boots, this superbly uncompromising purveyor of action art is a living antidote to all the bullshit that passes in our times for stuff of value.
His new show seems, at first, to contain exactly what all his exhibitions contain. On the walls are sombre photographs of vast expanses of arduous international landscape — a big Egyptian desert, a rocky South African valley, a turbulent American river — with careful texts added to them telling you where you are and, usually, how long it took to get here. Crossing the Sierra de Xures required nine days. Reaching the Karoo, on the parched tip of Africa, involved 15 days. To get from the northern coast of Ireland to the southern tip, a journey of 382 miles, took 12 days of walking. Phew. So the first thing you get from Long’s work is a sense of arduous achievement. You can’t bus yourself to the middle of Mongolia, or train it to Eighteenmile Island, on the Columbia River. These are places you need to walk to, often for hundreds of miles, invariably for many days.
But, of course, walking isn’t art. And fantastic effort, even for a man of Long’s age — he is 60 now, represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1976 and won the Turner Prize as far back as 1989 — must never be confused with genuine creative achievement. Where, therefore, is this relentless pushing of self taking us artistically? What is being attempted, aesthetically, by all this madly determined traversal of wildernesses? It’s in the answers to these loud questions that Long’s long-term worth is soon revealed.
Let’s get back to those appended texts. They, and not the moody photographs of deserts, are the keys to his art. Some of Long’s best pieces don’t bother with photography at all. They consist only of words, arranged on a poster or painted directly onto the wall, big and bold. I’m not a natural fan of word art. As I see it, artists should use art, and writers should use words. But words always rattle about your head when you walk, and on journeys as long as these, they get played and replayed in the imagination until they are as smooth and right as pebbles in a river.
Long’s texts ratchet up his sense of achievement by seeming to be all scientific and matter-of-fact. But really they’re trying to sneak into your thoughts and get into your shoes. Their ambition is to have you walking alongside him across whatever unimagin-ably difficult terrain he’s crossing, while simultaneously introducing a sense of mysterious purpose to his quest. And it is a quest. Dammit, it’s so obviously a quest, it’s almost Arthurian.
In this show, a couple of examples make this clear. A large wall text called Ocean to River: Water to Water, describes a walk across France of
473 miles that began with him collecting some water in the Atlantic and ended, 16 days later, with him tipping it into the Rhône. If carrying water from an ocean and depositing it 500 miles later into a river is not the act of a holy fool, then what is? But the piece I liked most is called From Simplicity to Complexity, a word piece that re-creates a walk across Dartmoor and consists of a huge list of verbal fragments that seek to evoke this troubling journey. It begins positively and merrily: CUMULUS CLOUDS; HAPPINESS; DRINKING SPRING WATER. Then a sense of romantic complication disrupts the mood — MOSS; CLOUD SHADOWS; LOVE — and it changes as abruptly as a Dartmoor day. Before you know it, things are getting dark, not only on the moor, but in Long’s thoughts: REGRET; A DEAD SHEEP; SNAGGED ON BARBED WIRE. The final word, DEFLATION, brings the journey to a potent emotional end.
That’s the thing about Long’s art. His legs make the effort, but your mind does the walking. We have here the yearnings of a flagellant, expressing themselves in the language of a minimalist. It’s poetry, really. Beneath the dry, effortful, monastic stomping across wildernesses that Long is addicted to, an incorrigible romantic is wandering about inside himself, searching for his soul.
- The year began badly for me with the news that the great English eccentric John Latham died on January 1. Latham was 84, and for most of this long spell of ferocious artistic adventure, he was a challenger of mediocrity, short cuts, dumbness and hypocrisy. Nobody gave him a knighthood, because artists like Latham don’t get knighthoods. Nobody made him a trustee, because artists like Latham don’t become trustees. But whatever God actually had in mind when he created artists, Latham was the rawest embodiment of it I ever encountered.
He was untamable. When it came to drinking, he made Charles Kennedy look like the leader of the temperance movement. Nothing he ever said made any obvious sense, because making sense was much too conventional. From the moment he emerged in the 1950s with a series of bleak monochrome abstracts that had the darkness of the times in their DNA, he played with conventional ways of understanding things as cats play with balls of wool.
Books became Latham’s thing. He would glue them to his canvases, burn them, assault them, submerge them, knife them, not as an attack on their integrity, but precisely because they were so potent. Latham’s enemy wasn’t knowledge: it was phoney knowledge, coffee-table thinking and banality.
Tate Britain recently opened a special display of his work that conveyed some of his cosmic range and bewildering mental expansiveness. The show was originally meant to include a piece called God Is Great, which highlighted the convergence in the three great faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Because the piece involved an actual copy of the Koran, it was sheepishly removed from the show and an apologetic text put up in its place. That’s what the enemy does to its cultural heroes.