These are my thoughts on a study visit I attended on 3/10/2015, concerning Richard Long and his exhibition: ‘Time and Space’, located in the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol.
I had already heard of Earth Art and Land Art and after reading their definitions, my initial impressions were they were similar in concept to what Capability Brown had done in the 18th century, where the landscape itself was altered for the people who used the land at the time. However, with Land and Earth Art, the landscape was being altered for the eventual piece of Art. I saw this as a kind of permanent installation on the Earth. If landscapes are reliant to a large extent on the land before the camera looking a certain way, then Earth Art, where the landscape is sculpted by the artist, is very important to how the final shot is seen. This was interesting to me because I had come to realise with my landscape photography, how dependant I was on the landscape to ‘cooperate’ in terms of subject matter like foreground interest and yet at the same time also include other objects in the middle ground/background, which complemented the foreground but also compositionally suggested something meaningful. Perhaps with Earth Art, where the eventual photographer had some input over some parts of the landscape, especially with foreground interest, I could have greater control over how the photograph looked aesthetically. Slightly contradictory to this though, was my inclination to keeping the landscape image ‘realistic’, so how much of the foreground for instance was changed was something I would pay attention to.
There were varying degrees to how extreme this Earth Art was sculpted in the land; from mammoth structures to much more subtle implementations by the likes of Richard Long, with ‘Blue Sky Circle’ (Long, 2002), for example. I felt my interest was peaked more by the subtler work of Long, not just because it was more feasible for me to experiment with but also because it addressed my previous concern of keeping the landscape image ‘realistic’, where if the effect on the landscape was subtle, I would be more comfortable with the changes made to the landscape and eventual image.
‘A Line Made by Walking exists now only in a photograph.’ – (O’Hagan, 2009). This quote from the article: One Step Beyond in The Guardian (2009), made me realise how some types of art; in this case Land Art by Richard Long, could be so fragile. At the same time; seeing as I had been contemplating photographs as finite in nature, it made me think that even the photograph was quite frail and yet it was also so important, as it remained as the only thing left to document that particular piece of Long’s Land Art.
I was very excited to attend this visit, mostly because I had looked at some of Long’s work already and admired some of the principles and ideas he incorporated into his inspiring and varied work. In short, this study visit didn’t disappoint at all, as I found it indeed very inspiring, as well as thought-provoking, in terms of how the the landscape medium is presented; specifically (for me) in regards to photography.
When we got to the Arnolfini Gallery, I started looking at one of the sculptures on the ground (New Slate Piece ‘Time and Space’ (2015)) to start with. The first thing that struck me was how detailed and intricate it was; with lots of rhythm and patterns evident in the sculpture. This was offset by the scale of the sculpture; it was quite large, filling most of a room of the gallery in an ‘X’ shape. However, interestingly, similar sculptures were present inside photographs, in a room nearby to that sculpture. These sculptures inside photographs appeared of similar size and comparable detail, once you put to one side imagining them in the context of their respective landscapes. This made me question: why did Long choose to display the sculptures in their ‘natural’ surroundings the majority of the time and of what significance was this to him. The ironic thing to me was that within the landscapes they were in, they often appeared as a kind of foreground detail within the landscape. Having seen a sculpture up close in the Arnolfini, there was clearly detail (the sculptures) within detail (the foreground detail present in the photographs), within the presented photographs.
Looking closer at these photographs, which intrigued me so much, another realisation came to me when I looked at the varying compositions of the photographs on display in the gallery. The compositions affected how the land art was viewed in respect to the landscapes they appeared in (their size and location within their respective surroundings). This in turn affected potential meaning inferred by the viewer of the photographs. However, I would question whether Long was simply intending to make a record of his own Land Art or trying to make a piece of Art have meaning through the photograph itself. Certainly, Land Art can be impermanent, like other mediums of Art (photographs to a lesser degree themselves), which could explain why Long was trying to make records of his own Land Art. Contradicting this, was the observation that as I had found out recently (Bate, 2009): ‘the temptation to make any scene picturesque was hard to resist’. Whether Long intended to make the scenes containing his Land Art ‘picturesque’ is debatable but I decided, from the, in my opinion, high quality of photographs on display, some thought had gone into the placement of the Land Art within its surroundings. Therefore, composition is rarely simply a composition. Rather, perhaps he had found the angle that would: ‘”would give the best view”’ – (Watkins, 1858) In. (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2013). However, because his Land Art actually changed the landscape significantly, this would then alter his eventual composition of the scene in the photograph, had the Land Art not been there. Photography’s arguable impermanence itself, makes for another, slightly pessimistic consideration: if the record (the photograph) is impermanent anyway, does it really matter whether Long records his Land Art in this way?
A couple of examples of these photographs, which caught my eye were: ‘Manang Circle’ – (Long, 1983) and ‘Blowing in the Wind’ – Long, 1981). They contrasted in style of treatment (black and white and colour, respectively) and also structure of the Land Art (circular and straight, respectively). Lastly, the compositions and general feel of the photographs were very different, where ‘Manang Circle’ – (Long, 1983) was much more oppressive without the horizon line, in comparison to ‘Blowing in the Wind’ – (Long 1981), where a much more conventional horizon and diagonal lead-in line (coincidentally the Land Art itself), was employed. Both worked for me but ‘Manang Circle’ – (Long, 1983), possessed a greater sense of depth and scale, despite not including an horizon. ‘Blowing in the Wind’ – (Long 1981) meanwhile, felt like more of a record of the (eleven day) journey Long had undertaken in this landscape.
Long not only makes Land Art sculptures but also texts and sculptures on walls and of course photographs, so the exhibition was very varied. My take on why he uses such varied methods to present or represent his journeys, was that he wants himself to have a record of these journeys and to share it with others. Perhaps, he feels different journeys require or encourage different methods of recording and so he presents them accordingly. Perhaps they represented his mental state at the time, because I understood from the exhibition that he becomes quite meditative and charged while out on the walks that make him want to record these works. The texts in particular were different to what I was used to seeing in a gallery and the creative use of the number of words on a line and the descriptive words, I found clever. I found they complemented other works well but only as a side to the visual works, which to me were more striking.
Afterwards, some of us (eventually!), found our way to a piece of Long’s work called: ‘Boyhood Line’ – (Long, 2015). Long had created this piece of Land Art in the general area he had grown up and so, presumably had some real significance to him. It was nice to see some of his Land Art work outside of the gallery or not represented in a photograph. This particular piece of work, for me seemed to fit in with the surrounding landscape, as well as stand out at the same time. The grass it was built on had begun to grow up around the white stones it was made up of, which helped with the ‘natural’ tendencies it had on me, while the actual line of stones was fairly straight and not as winding as I had expected. All of this meant it looked like a usual path, apart from the fact that it was, well, made on purpose! This made me wonder: what would it look like in a few months/years, when the grass had grown up/encroached upon the stones more and people began to treat it just as another part of the landscape and maybe not so much as a piece of Art. It was quite telling for me that there were two fainter paths on either side of Long’s path; suggesting many people had come to look at the path closely but had refrained from treading on the path. This could have maybe been out of respect for Long’s Land Art, where visitors, like me, were unsure whether the path was to be looked at or perhaps walked upon. This further made me question the path’s (and indeed other Land Art by Long’s) eventual permanence or lack of it and therefore the arguable need to document it in other ways like in photographs.
Overall, I learnt a lot from this experience and from a photographic perspective it was inspiring to see this kind of subtle intervention to the landscape; even if the artist Long had been more preoccupied with the journeys themselves and the documenting of it photographically came second to this. The text-based work was interesting for me also because I could maybe incorporate some of this into my own work going forwards, where single, descriptive words could be used to describe the scene as I remember it; as well as the photograph.
Encyclopedia Britannica. (2013). Carleton E. Watkins | American photographer. [online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Carleton-E-Watkins [Accessed 15 Oct. 2015].
Long, R. (2015). TIME AND SPACE. [Exhibition] 31 Jul. 15th Nov. 2015. Arnolfini, Bristol.
O’Hagan, S. (2009). One step beyond. [Online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/may/10/art-richard-long [Accessed 15 Oct. 2015.