Artist makes his mark naturallyRichard Long’s peripatetic life is reflected in his art, which has used far-flung places such as the Mongolian desert and Arctic sea as backdrops, but he stays as close to the earth as possible in more ways than one. He has no business cards, assistants or a car. He’s recently installed a fax at his home in Bristol, England, but still hasn’t gotten e-mail.
For at least 36 years since he graduated from the St. Martin’s School of Art in London, Mr. Long’s focus has been his art. Unlike many artists, he doesn’t teach, because he says he has “nothing to say.”
Kukje Gallery curator Kim Eun-su was one of the few staff members who observed Mr. Long the entire time he worked on his installation for the exhibition in the Seoul gallery, which opened Tuesday. She describes the artist’s style of working as “ritualistic.”
“He would rarely take cabs from his downtown hotel to the gallery,” says Ms. Kim. “He would arrive at the gallery every morning at around 10 a.m., finish his bowl of green salad and Coke, and went straight on to working on his piece until the early evening. He came by the office to let us know when he finished for the day.
“He seemed disturbed whenever people passed by him in between or stood there to watch his work in progress. It was as if he almost wanted to use the gallery space as his own studio. I felt a sense of a Buddhist monk.”
Mr. Long, 58, agrees that there are meditative aspects in his works, but seems less thrilled about how his persona has been overstated in the media as a way of stylizing the nature of his work. He laughs, brushing aside Ms. Kim’s comment, saying, “Art is my only religion.”
Walking as a creative process
Mr. Long uses the idea of a path as a metaphor for the creation of art. His first work made by walking, in 1967, was a straight line in a grass field in England.
His works are concerned with the idea of “making marks” on the earth, “like a self-portrait of my action and my body,” he says. Instead of paintings, he prefers to use the term “mark-making,” using his hands rather than brushes for murals done in clay.
He’s traveled to various sites of landscapes around the world, making footprints or leaving other marks on the ground, using natural materials like water, pebbles or tree barks. Other works are done in slate, feathers, pine needles, planks and other rustic materials that are found during his long, solitary walks. These outings are an integral part of the artist’s projects, which explore his relationship to the landscape.
The artist documents these scenes through photographs, maps and text. Most of the artist’s works are done in remote countrysides, and only last for a certain period. There are no people or traces of social interaction with the locals in most of Mr. Long’s photographs.
Once in a while, he says, people will approach his outdoor installation without realizing they are part of the artist’s works. In his “Nomad Circle,” a circle of stones set in a Mongolian desert, there is an image of a local man sitting in the middle of the circle, lighting a cigarette. But even that was purely accidental, he says.
A particular Frenchman seeks out his outdoor sculptures, Mr. Long says, but for the most part, his landscape work goes unvisited.
The text details the actual measurement of distances he has walked, the location and the duration of his walk. In a way, he uses his body as a scale to measure natural events.
Some of the text also incorporates physical descriptions of the site and the artist’s activities. For “Wind Stones,” he writes: “scattered along a 15-day walk in Lappland, 207 stones turned to point into the wind 1985.”
Other descriptions are more abstract and poetically archaic, recording the artist’s profoundly personal experiences in nature and sense of the space. For “Two Sahara stones” in 1988, he writes, “Sitting on a mountaintop in the Hoggar, clapping two flat stones together a thousand times.”
“Walking with the river’s roar,” in Nepal 1983, states, “Great Himalayan time, a line moments, my father, starlit snow, human time, frozen boots, breaking trail, circles of a great bird, countless stones, happy alert balanced, paths of shared footmarks, atomic silence, sleeping by the river’s roar.”
The notion of traveling has also been an integral part of Mr. Long’s works. So far he’s visited and taken walks in Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Canada, Ecuador, England, Finland, France, Greece, Iceland, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Korea, Malawi, Mexico, Mongolia, Morocco, Nepal, Norway, Peru, Portugal, Scotland, the Seychelles, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tanzania, Turkey, United States, Wales and Zambia.
Long explains that his destinations are chosen based strictly on his instinct. But “no research,” he says.
In addition to his walking art, Mr. Long puts installations in gallery spaces using materials that are relevant at the exhibition site.
But he never brings in materials he has found outside during his walks for a gallery display. When he has an overseas exhibit, he normally chooses from the samples of materials sent by the gallery, which the gallery then orders from local factories. Otherwise, the artist uses materials found during his visit, one of the reasons he calls himself “an opportunist.”
For his current show at Kukje, he created three separate installations of spirals and a cube using different sizes of local rocks and giwa, or Korean roofing tiles he’s found near the gallery. On the side, he’s produced 10 “mud works” on the wall and mulberry paper he picked up in Insa-dong, drawings done through a series of spontaneous hand movements, which he began producing in the 1970s for private collections and gallery displays.
Also for an exhibit at Kukje, he’s installed six photographs of the sites he’s visited since 1990. One is “Dry Ground Sleeping Place,” which stemmed from the artist’s eight-day walk in Mount Sobaek in Korea when he was there in 1993.
“The idea of walking expands the scale of art for me,” he says. “It’s important for me to show people what I’ve done outside in the gallery, though they are very temporary and ephemeral.”
Similar to the tracks on his outdoor sculptures, his gallery installations are often minimal in form, sometimes as simple as a straight line of stones across the room.
Ideas of his “childhood pleasures” ― when he was young, he poured turpentine in water to see them mix and take whatever form ― also evolved into the idea of making a sculpture by walking, he says.
Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects about Mr. Long’s gallery display or site-specific sculptures is how the artist’s intuition dictates the idea of place or the material history.
Often, the cultural significance of Mr. Long’s destinations, whether the Gobi Desert or the Scottish highlands, seems less of a concern to the artist than his personal fascination with the sublime landscape of the sites he chooses. Nature is universal in Mr. Long’s works; there is no social context.
“I am more interested in landscape,” he says. “My works are site-specific in that certain materials are unique to their places. But they could also be brought to England when the show is over. For me, these are just interesting materials. I think artists can’t worry about things outside that.”
Intuition affects the artist’s style of working as well.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Mr. Long pointed at one of his installations. “It’s done,” he says, with confidence.
When asked how he knows where to end, he says, “I can’t tell you how I know, but I know.”
by Park Soo-mee
The Richard Long exhibition is at Kukje Gallery in Seoul through June 13. For more information, call (02) 735-8449.