Taking the Long View

This article by John Billingsley is a set of linked psychogeographical reflections deriving from a time, a place, an exhibition (a Richard Long retrospective), and a book (Colin Renfrew’s Figuring It Out, Thames & Hudson, 2003) .

Tuesday, August 4, 1998. Pavilion Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Arriving late, just an hour till the gallery closes, and I’m really wanting a cup of tea after delivering Northern Earth to the printers for the 25th time, but I’ve driven all this way and the priority must be Long’s exhibition. I go to see Long exhibitions any time they’re within reach, so I must be a fan – but I generally emerge a bit unsure of what I’ve seen and what I get from it all. I like stone, I like circles and lines, I like non-invasive landscape installations, I like walking, and all these elements are present in a Long exhibition – but after looking at the usual exhibits of photographs of circles of various materials in various locations, or framed rectangles of white paper printed with simple text aligned in cryptic koan-like extractions, and the odd map or two with Long’s walking routes plotted out on them, I am a bit nonplussed. I should like Richard Long’s art, and I do like it, very much, and he seems to come under the earth mysteries umbrella somewhere, but – I can’t stop questions like does it stand up as art? [1]

Twenty-five minutes later, I’m sitting at a table outside the Bothy Cafe, pot of tea and slice of fruit cake before me; oh, and a notebook and pen, from which materials the following comments were initiated. Twenty minutes after that, I’m back in the gallery, checking out the scribbled notes and catching the last quarter of an hour. Then more notes, more reflection, and five years later this article – not so much about Long’s work, but a phenomenology of seeing the exhibition at that time and place, and the reflections that arose then resonating through other areas of experience over several years.

A video was playing as I walked back in. Long walking and making circles. A bit of talking. The latter I missed because I was too busy thinking about the former. This man’s a walker – I know that because his framed work tells us. Some of his text works describe, say, a walk of ‘622 miles in 21 days’. At places he stops, for no particular reason that I can see from the video or the photos, and does something simple; maybe a circle, maybe a line, involving local materials. Then he walks on. The acts become points on a journey[2].

Hey, well I do that. I’ve been doing it since the mid-70s, before I knew about Long. I’m hiking along then for no special reason – maybe I find something or I feel that this place wants me to stop and leave it something – I make a spiral of stones, or a face in twigs or whatever makes sense at the time. It’s one of the pleasures of my longer walks. I tend, for some reason I’ve never thought about too deeply, to conceptualise some of my journeys, like making an axis across London from Greenwich to Hampstead.

What these things are, that both Long and I, and a number of earth mysteries friends, do are site-specific works; creations derived from some response to a particular place. Long’s landscape works, however, don’t appear, from the photos, to be especially visually site-sensitive, in the sense of responding to or complementing a landscape feature or memorable place; but nonetheless they are responses to place, and in a brief, transient way, they are monuments, a ritual site that will never be uncovered by archaeologists..

Long’s other works include ‘word works’ – a statement of a walk he has done, often with a string of episodes from that walk, like a dog barking or the smell of a bonfire – or an explanation of the conceptual purpose of the walk, like taking mud from the Avon estuary and dropping some of it into other rivers en route to a source of the Mersey – and indoor installations – at the Pavilion was a work consisting of six concentric circles of Delabole slate.

It’s not that Long does anything the rest of us can’t do (except perhaps walk 622 miles) – we can all make circles with a post or piece of string, we can all walk in a circle or clear a circle in stony terrain, and photograph it afterwards, we can all take mud or water and place it meaningfully elsewhere. But most of us – well, it doesn’t occur to us, or we can’t be bothered, or we don’t see the point in it, since it’ll probably be half-gone by the time anybody sees it.

What’s the difference? Well, partly it’s that Long is an artist, and to be an artist you need an audience. If you’re making a circle in Tierra del Fuego or the middle of Iceland, your audience potential is going to be limited and your sponsor, if you’re lucky enough to have one, is going to be less than pleased. So you need a photograph, or if it’s not an installation-type walk, a diary of some sort, to put in the galleries at home. I take photographs of what I do if I have a camera with me, but they don’t appear in galleries since I’m not (don’t see myself as) an artist; my work is made for the place and whatever audience that place commands, tangible or ethereal[3].

That’s just one part of the experience of being out and about. Any number of perceptions are active when walking. Of course, temperature, light, weather conditions, terrain, smells, sounds, animal behaviour, body condition, etc., are constantly feeding in. I am aware of subjective impressions from the landscape and more objective responses emerging from the local historian, antiquarian and folklorist within me. Though part of the same walk, they are obviously not integrated at that time as an experience, but separated or layered, and I can choose which to focus on – the persistence of the rain, behaviour of lapwings, carvings on houses, view from ancient sites, ache in my legs.

There’s more yet to the experience of being out and about. I also jot down memorable episodes from my journeys. They are moments when I am conscious of getting a message, perhaps an omen, though my mind usually gives me little working clue as to what that message may be. They may be instants when the perception is for some reason heightened, taken out of the everyday – and it is this kind of experience I see framed and rendered for an audience in a Long exhibition. Visually unexciting, even demanding and disappointing in their plainness, what is one to make of them? The sculptures are little more than installations. The photos are documentary rather than artistic. And the textworks are certainly not poetry, which is the only way apart from advertising that we are conditioned to accept cryptic textual messages. They make more sense from a Zen viewpoint, as the encapsulated experiences, strung out as points on an unmapped journey, echo like koan or haiku; on that 622-mile journey, Long must have heard innumerable dogs bark, but only twice did he hear that sound enough for it to appear on this sheet of paper that I looked at in the Pavilion Gallery. A meaningful moment separates from a palette of meaningless sound.

While I was at the gallery, a young mother came out, past Long’s stone circle; her daughter, about 4 years old, asked “what is it, mummy?”. She replied “apparently it’s art”, and the girl said, very matter-of-factly and accepting, “Oh. Is it”.

Perhaps it was that mother’s comment that started me thinking. Perhaps it was the fact that the stone circle, for all its first-sight DIY simplicity and challenge to accepted notions of art, changed the room; even when turned away from it, looking at a photo or text work, it prickled at my back, like some looming ‘presence’ you might feel in the woods. But when I succumbed to temptation and looked around, there was nothing there but slate circles. It was only ‘apparently art’ because of where it was placed (as indeed were the textworks); but that circle created change[4].

What is art, anyway? This is unanswerable. Most of us are more articulate in knowing (in our opinion) what isn’t art, or is only ‘apparently art’. For me, a step in the right direction is when it evokes a response in the spectator. Unless the spectator feels it click inside them, it doesn’t go much further. It’s when the spectator responds positively that the event of seeing becomes message-laden – if the spectator is moved, even if they don’t really know why, meaning has intruded into life[5].

So that’s why after my cup of tea I’d wandered back to the ‘word works’. Long’s extracted moments are, like his circles and lines, points on a journey. They are moments when the experience became suddenly meaningful. All very good for Long. But do they work as art? Why should he expect us to want to look at them? After all, we look at art, not read it. And they look, frankly, rather unexciting on the surface. But hang on – a dog barks in the distance, there’s a smell of woodsmoke on the wind. I know that sound, I know that smell, and immediately in my mind there unpacks a rich fund of experience, evoked by Long’s text – not just the dog, not just the smell of woodsmoke. No visual art could express the sound of that dog, and if we see fire smoke in a painting, we see it, and the visual image may drown out the other senses lying in store within the memory. By contrast, the plainness of Long’s textworks work in a very Zen way, by enriching the present moment of reading with a panoply of past associations and multi-sensed impressions that implicitly carry the seeds of change, as they evoke moments of heightened perception.

So from there I go back to the landscape installations, not apparently visually site-specific – particularly not the one of the gallery floor – but nonetheless events which arise from Long being there at that particular place and time[6].

It seems to me that what we are doing is responding to the subtlety of place, the hint of potential within a place; we are making offerings to the spirit of the place. It is probable, I feel, that solitary walking is one method of allowing all the layers of experience the time and opportunity to talk to one another, so that the chance croak of a frog may bear a message from a prince. Long’s exhibition placed me both in a gallery and on a long solitary walk, so that a passing exchange led to a string of reflections involving subtle atmospheres, perceptions, earth energies, the nature of art, the experience of walking, the environmental effect of monuments and much more[7]; which then sat on my computer waiting for another event – in this case, a book by a veteran archaeologist – to unlock the stasis.

Ancient sites obviously have this effect, too, on some of us. Tilley and others suggest the impulse of ancient monuments was to create phenomenology within a landscape, to enhance meaning and narrative through architectural embellishment; though it is open to question whether they were embodying cultural narratives or responding to something perceived in the landscape, i.e. being, in their own way, massive site-specific installations. Even now, though shadows of their monumental selves, archaeological sites (and not just prehistoric ones, but even the very mundane Cornish tin-mines or even wholly bogus follies) occupy their place and work on the imagination, secretive agents of change and meaning… Archaeology in transition to art, and the resulting collaborative landscape creates the potential for change in the viewer-participant[8].

[1] Renfrew (Figuring It Out, Thames & Hudson.2003) too has admitted as much: “I found it difficult to accept [Chalk Line] as a work of art, for it did not conform in any way to my expectations as to what a sculpture should be. It consisted simply of pieces of chalk that Long had laboriously carted into the gallery and set down tidily and carefully to create a wide, regular line. The individual pieces of chalk did not form interior lines or structures – to that extent they were laid randomly. But there were no large gaps between them. At the same time the edges were clear and definite. And that was it. // Probably, like most of those who saw it, I would have passed it by with a shrug as yet another example of the inscrutable character of much contemporary art. I did not have a context in which to situate the work… In short, I did not understand it” p.2 .

[2] Renfrew describes this part of Long’s development – “Often, when out in the country, Long made a small intervention – gathering some sticks into a line or circle, or rearranging some stones upon a hillside. This was always done discreetly, so it would not seriously interfere with the location”.

[3] I avoid the term earth energy because of the baggage it has acquired. But I couldn’t avoid one friend’s question whether, in my e.m. work, I ‘worked with the energies’. I told her I thought I probably did much the same as she does, but didn’t call it that. I just stop and do things at places, whatever seems to pop up in my mind – maybe a design in stones or wood, maybe a dance or a song. Never something that makes a lasting or invasive material impression on that place. I feel I respond to the place; I watched her do the same, in her own way. So I guess , unfashionably New-Agey as that may sound in modern e.m., I – and Long, perhaps – ‘work with the energies’!

[4] Renfrew too uses the word ‘presence’ for Long’s work: “What I find remarkable is the ‘presence’ of the work in the gallery” p.34

[5] In this way, art has a phenomenological perspective which it shares with those archaeological sites that we describe as evocative. It can, as Renfrew says, evoke similar existential questions and make one think again about one’s responses; on Long again, he remarks “Long’s work … soon obliged me to enlarge my own definitions of what ‘art’ might be and to recognise that my initial reactions to Long’s work had been hampered by my own a priori judgment as to what was or was not ‘art’. The increasing involvement with the notion of what constituted a monument led in turn to an increase in my admiration for the prehistoric builders in Orkney as craftworkers and indeed as artists” p.30

[6] Watching Long’s video, I was reminded of my energy-worker friend, and the way she made me realise that I could, if I chose, also describe myself as an energy-worker; and Long makes me realise that I could, if I chose, also describe myself as an artist. Ergo, working with place as he does, Long could describe himself, if he chose, as an energy-worker. I doubt, though, if he would appreciate that label at all, or even any overt connection with e.m. subjects, although remarks made early in his career – and not, as far as I am aware, recently – indicated a familiarity and sympathy with leys. Oh, and a week or two earlier, I had been with some Gatekeeper Trust people when they poured water brought from Glastonbury into Lancashire’s River Ribble; not so different from carrying mud to the Mersey, really.

[7] Long is the first artist Renfrew introduces in his book, and the one largely responsible for Renfrew’s extended existential reflection on art and archaeology, too: “the direct experience of the work of Richard Long has allowed me to engage with prehistoric field monuments in what for me is a new and different way. Such an encounter may promote fresh observations as well as speculations about their functions in neolithic times…”p.199

[8] And then I think of crop circles… people claim psychological effects from them, and that the molecular structure of water changes when it is left within one. But the likelihood that circles are ‘hoaxes’, i.e. someone made them, seems for some people to disqualify any such possibility. Well, we need an element of scepticism after all; but Long’s circles changed the sensation, at least, in that gallery, so why shouldn’t a crop circle or glyph, however made, or indeed any fully conscious interaction with the landscape, have a similar effect on space and anything within that space? How might we, without New Age glibness, assess this possibility, that the creative act itself effects subtle shifts in the nature of place, and thus holds a real potential for changes in consciousness in self and others? If it does, of course, then crop circles become less prone to mystical fantasy and site-specific art becomes more so.

Review:FIGURING IT OUT

Colin Renfrew

Thames & Hudson. Hbk, ISBN 0 500 051143

There is a strong tradition in modern art of an engagement with landscape that differs markedly from the traditional approaches of the 17-19th centuries. Broader, existential questions are being phrased within its context, in ways that are often difficult for the layperson to appreciate at first glance. Landscape is fused with experience and meaning, it blends with life and inhabitation, and somewhere within that spectrum noted archaeologist Renfrew can observe that “viewing Tracey Emin’s unmade bed was essentially an archaeological experience”. For the archaeologist, looking at the jumble in a trench, or the pattern of an ancient building, is reaching for sense – not just of the place, but of the life that went on within it. Renfrew, influenced initially by the disquieting presence of a Richard Long artwork (my article ‘Taking the Long View’, p21ff, doubles as a supplementary review of this book), goes on to explore this interface – art as archaeology and vice versa. Unavoidably, though Renfrew dislikes the word, this involves a phenomenological perspective.

Renfrew is not only concerned with artists whose work directly impinges on archaeology, like Long, Edward Paolozzi and Mark Dion, but also rises to the challenge ‘but is it art?’ by reference to the iconic questions framed by Gauguin: ‘Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?’. He introduces as a framework for discussion Merlin Donald’s schema for human cultural evolution (Origins of the Modern Mind) – that human cognitive processes have moved from Episodic (primate cognition) through Mimetic, to Linguistic or Mythic, to Theoretic culture (using external symbolic storage) – but goes further, to suggest that today we are moving towards the dematerialisation of culture, where energy (e.g. electronic communication) replaces matter, rendering today’s realities intangible to the archaeologists of the future.

The many artists, particularly, within earth mysteries will be interested in Renfrew’s cat’s cradle of a discussion, which starts out strongly in his discussion of his response to Long and in his demolition of Renaissance artistic ideals. Thereafter, there is much to reflect on, concerning the way we look at art from the past and the present, and without doubt this is a book worth reading; but sometimes I was left feeling that he has made a grand thesis out of a personal association. We all do this to some extent, but sometimes our connections don’t carry everyone along with us. [JB]

Published in Northern Earth 94, Summer 2003, pp.19-23

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