A line of moments... Light and darkness in Richard Long’s text works

December 17, 2015

Since 1982, at the seminal show 'When Attitudes become Form', Richard Long has been creating complex text works from walking and experiencing the world as he passes through it. This essays explores both the joy of life and its dark shadow; death.

 

 


Introduction


Richard Long’s text works are perhaps his most austere in their aesthetic and formal composition, consequently they are often seen as his most esoteric. These works fit into a peculiar location somewhere between a philosophical exercise and poetic recording of the landscape. As with all of his works they are not independent studies or experimentations divorced from his overall practice. They are abstractions, or components, of his primary model of working; walking. In these works the ‘walk’ assumes the position of both a practical gesture, done in order to realise the work, and as a symbolic metaphor of moving through life.

In Long’s work their is frequently a sense of dichotomy; of relationships and antitheses. Often these are complex but simply expressed and without over-elaboration. A relationship of particular importance is his attempt to reconcile direct experience with its subsequent documentation. Naturally one thinks of these two concepts as antithetical. One is direct and transient, the other is subsequent, post-experience, and intended for posterity. His works therefore always carry a sense of inescapable melancholy and loss; always after the ‘fact’.1 Documentation is something that has to come later, or last; it can never replace, only hope and long for what was lost. This essay will focus on my analysis of his use of text as founded on our own perceptual awareness of existential space.

Emphasis should be focused on Long’s relationship with subjective experience. His text works are evidence of a momentary recognition of existence. His art does not describe the world as it is given to him, rather he views the world as a product of subjective synthesis. That is, something that can only be approached though direct experience; a point at which the subject and object interact, a point at which he was aware of his own existence. In Long’s case walking is a way of both physically and conceptually interacting with an ‘existential space’ that exists both on the periphery and intersection of the internal and external worlds.

Long is not a passive weekend walker viewing the natural world as a pedestrian. And he knows that nature will not be passive in return. Long is both an onlooker and a participant, foregrounding his own experience and his own interaction with the natural world. That experience can be read as relating to both life and death. With such a deliberate focus on the living presence it is not difficult to see it as a premonition of when the living light comes to an end. All that remains in Long’s work is the spectral evidence of a walk, or mark; a moment now lost. Subjective recording can only happen once, and so in this way the brevity of life is expressed.

Early Morning

As human beings we are essentially centred within our own space, within our ‘immediate perceptual space’.2 As such this ‘perceptual space’ forms the basis of our interaction between the internal and external. Early Morning Senses Island Walk 1982 (fig. 1), is as the title suggests; a record of the sensory experience of an early morning walk.3 Rather than the work directly relating to existence it is about existence via the foregrounding of perception. It refers to the ‘self’ as an observer of existence. The columns of words mark points at which Long was self-referentially aware. More importantly, the point at which he was in direct, if perceptual, contact with his external environment. His fertile ‘Spring Walk’ 1991 (fig. 2) functions in a similar way. His notations are past encounters; like fragments of consciousness.

Perception presents the external world to the subject as a perceptual image of the environment. Notations of Long’s perception are, naturally, notations of contact between the internal consciousness and external, material world. They are points of synthesis at which Long was experiencing the external world through his internal mechanisms. The points he marks are therefore both ambiguously objective and subjective; they are objects in-themselves but they are experienced via perception.

Long’s tautological attention to his perceptual awareness references the fundamental argument Maurice Merleau-Ponty encounters in his Phenomenology of Perception.4 The mind, or ‘body’, is “neither internal to my consciousness nor external to me in the environment... the body is precisely that orients us in the world in which we are able to individuate subjects and objects to begin with.”5 Long’s notation of sensory perception and its relation to the external world is a confirmation of Merleau-Ponty’s recognition that “I could not grasp anything as existing if I did not first experience myself as existing in the act of grasping;...Of course, the act of unifying is nothing without the spectacle of the world that unites.”6  

The perceptual dialectic of subject/object is Merleau-Ponty’s central contention from which it is possible to infer an ‘existential space’.7 By appropriating the central concerns of phenomenology it allows a possible reading of Long’s text works with regard to his concern of being-in-existence. As such, the blurring of meaning between subject-object is the central consideration.

The method Long uses to complicate the interaction between internal and external is shown in the relationship that each sign, or notation, has to each other. The signs, or descriptive elements, in Early Morning for example, are fractional and yet oddly specific; sometimes abstract (‘chilliness’, ‘horizon’), sometimes explicit (‘bee’, ‘dead fish’). The designation between object and subject is therefore obscured and put under contention.  

The contention is most obvious in the way Long has not recorded his sensory experience of the objects, rather he has recorded the object that reacted with his sense and there is a crucial difference in its implication. For example; ‘bee’ is not recorded as ‘buzzing’ because ‘buzzing’ is specific and ‘bee’ is not. A bee can be seen as well as heard, and possible felt. His experience of the bee is more complex and more multifaceted than a specific notation would allow for. When analysing the structure of the words they are not explicitly segregated into their perception through the senses (sight, smell, sound, touch, taste, etc.). The implication being that each can be approached in a variety of ways.

Without the context of the title Long’s nouns do not immediately suggest perception. ‘Net, seal, wren, pebble’ do not describe ones perception of them. The word ‘sun’ for instance, does not directly reference of the glare or warmth of the sun. However, when the notation ‘dazzling’ is made, instantly all the other descriptions become seen as experiences and not just independent objects. The two notations interact in a way that brings all the others into a complex web of cross reference. Ones experience of the ‘sun’ is multifaceted in a way in which it can be experienced in different ways by its self and also through its interaction with another object to create the notation ‘dazzling’.

What is most notable in the work is the integration of these specific units of perception as adjectives (‘hard’, ‘wet’, ‘dazzling’), and therefore not independent, nor quantifiable, objects. The ontological connotation of Long’s nouns are of material properties. Conversely, ‘dazzling’ does not contain a definable material property and as such can also only be experienced via perception.

In order for him to have documented these points his conscious mind could not have been idle nor removed from perceptual awareness on a kind of auto-pilot. His notations of objects-in-themselves therefore reference not only his own existence but moments at which he was aware of his own existence; his own existential reality.

Long’s structure is a recognition that the external ‘real’ world can only be experienced through his perception of it. That is, from the perspective of the experiencing subject. The experience of the coldness and freshness of the sea air is as much an internal and personal experience as the sight of a ‘dead fish’ is.

Emmanuel Levinas, in his 1972 essay ‘Humanisme de l'autre homme’ (‘Humanism of the Other’), remarks on the deconstruction of semantic reliability that,  “experience, like language, no longer seems made of isolated elements... [words] signify from the world and from the position of one who is looking.”…“Every verbal signification lies at the confluence of countless semantic rivers.”8. Levinas here explicitly make reference to the association between the use of words as a referent to the phenomenological position of the ‘one who is looking’. Long does a similar thing whereby he expresses all words from the first-person perspective; i.e a phenomenological position. All of Long’s words narrate through the ‘I’; the first-person singular pronoun. Although, the ‘I’ is only referred to through the walk as a documentation of Long’s own experience. A result of this is that the work exists both in past and present tenses and thus highlights the fleeting and impermanent moment.

In Early Morning and Spring Walk there is no inclination to articulate the experience comprehensively. It seems to say, ‘a single word will suffice for the entirety of an experience’. However, isolating these words allows the semantic field to become much broader. Perhaps this is because Long realises that a description, however comprehensive, cannot fully reconstruct an experience; it is too complex.9 Perhaps a description would, inevitably, also imply a representation of existential reality, a kind of inferior facsimile of the real.

Representation can be seen in the same way that the other great father of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl defines explanation. For Husserl, everything is grounded in the direct presence of reality to consciousness; you cannot escape the mind, you cannot escape the body.10 Husserl draws “a sharp contrast between description and explanation, which, by its very nature, goes beyond what is given to the subject”.11 Due to its subjective qualities ‘explanation’ it therefore is not predicated on the basis of objectivity and as such is representational.

Within the context of Long’s words, and in particular within the context of someone reading and attempting to reconstitute them, each ‘object’ (‘dead fish’ for example) can be re-contextualized indefinitely in the mind of the viewer and in a variety of ways. This therefore is removed from the directly representational. It seems Long’s intention for doing this is to make reference to the fact that a truly objective recording of existence is inexpressible. What is expressed however, is the unattainability of reliving a moment and the melancholy of continual loss.

It certainly would not be my intention to read theoretical positions into Long’s work for their own sake. Long is certainly not a theoretician in the manner of other artist involved in developing a position for Conceptual art (if we think of the contextual theorisation and writings of Art&Language, Long’s contemporaries).12 It is my opinion that these works benefit from being read both philosophical and linguistically. My reasoning for this is the various ways in which Long has presented them; on the wall, as framed prints, in books, and digitally. This therefore makes it difficult to analyse their physical attributes in relation to their conceptual content.

However, as works of art, the aesthetics of them do deserve some attention. The font primarily used is Gill Sans-serif, a distinctly modernist font designed by the sculptor Eric Gill. Using a simplified, function font, and the occasional use of colour bares an aesthetic similar to the legend on an Ordnance Survey map.13 The suggestion of this being that, similar to a legend, the work provides you with the tools to make sense of the walk. Possibly even to make sense of the walk as a symbolic act that relates to the process of progressing through life.

LIFEDEATH

The ‘I’ is, following in the Cartesian sense, a confirmation of the existence of the self. It looks out from the body and simultaneously inwards, recognising the concept of the internal self as an object of consciousness. The ‘I’ refers to a perceptual awareness of existence that inevitably carries with it a sense of mortality; in its self-referentiality the ‘I’ functions as a memento mori. In the western art tradition a memento mori has come to mean anything that suggests death, however its Latin translation is close to ‘remember death’ or ‘remember that you will die’. Traditionally it was used in close conceptual proximity to the Vanitas, which has an altogether different intention. Perhaps a better, and more specific, definition in relation to Long would be the phrase ‘mono no aware’, a Japanese term which implies a recognition of transience.14 The phrase seems apt in particular relation to Long’s sensory text works. The phrase refers to a pathos (aware) of things (mono), deriving from their transience.

Long’s use of the ‘I’ is suggested through sensory notations. These are a momentary or partial view of the world as it passes through the literal act of walking and through the walks duration. Time and space are solidified in the work only to better highlight the transience and passing of the onlooker. From this emerges an emotive response in the viewer. Notably for instance, Spring Walk is centred around notations of creation in nature (‘frogspawn’, ‘lambs’, ‘blossom’). Long therefore relates, with poignancy and poetic melancholy, birth and ephemerality. A similar juxtaposition can been seen in Lifedeath 2011 (fig. 5) which is expressed in with title; life and death as one unbroken word. One continues into the other and together they create a sense of unity, even if this unity contains a strong sense of tragedy for the onlooker; in this case Long himself.

The phrases in Lifedeath alternate from life to death; vitality is juxtaposed with mortality. The ‘memorial stone’ next to the ‘bluebells’, perhaps left on the grave, perhaps grown from decomposition; fertility next to the funereal. ‘Two mothers’ next to ‘ashes’, ‘foals’ next to ‘bleached bones’, ‘eggshell’ next to ‘tree stumps’; the work releasing with ‘sun’ and condemning with ‘moon’. In this duality the ‘I’ is both onlooker and participant and what is expressed is a very personal, autobiographical, response to death. The death of the ‘I’ is not an experience as, returning to Descartes, it lacks the ability to confirm the self. The death of others, however, is. In this the juxtaposition of ‘Two mothers’ with ‘ashes’ becomes much more poignant and much more intimate.

The choice of words on the whole express a solemnity and tragedy. The phrase ‘lark song’, for instance, associates the work with a noticeably romantic, English sensibility.15 The notation immediately puts one in mind of the soaring melody and unity of lyricism and melancholy of Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending.16 Long’s text works often have, what one may term, distinctly ‘poetic’ titles (A Cloudless Walk, Waterlines, White Water Black River, The Space of Time) and thus they carry a heavier emotional weight and suggestion that would otherwise be lacking from the, more pragmatic, philosophical act of noting ones senses.  

 ‘I Watched A Blackbird” 
I watched a blackbird on a budding sycamore
One Easter Day, when sap was stirring twigs to the core;
I saw his tongue, and crocus-coloured bill
Parting and closing as he turned his trill;
Then he flew down, seized on a stem of hay,
And upped to where his building scheme was under way,
As if so sure a nest were never shaped on spray.


I Watched a Blackbird (fig. 6) could easily be mistaken for a Richard Long title. It is in fact one of Thomas Hardy’s best known poems about the English countryside. Even in its prose structure, and reference to the ‘I’, it is not unlike one of Long’s works, except padded out with conjunctions and a more legible narrative. In Long’s Walking with the Rivers Roar 1983 (fig. 3), the notations seem closer to unexplained metaphors but the poetic suggestion is nevertheless apparent; ‘Great Himalayan time’, ‘A line of moments’, ‘Circles of a great bird’.

The deconstruction of precise narrative in Long’s text works is apparent when viewed in relation to a more traditional form of poetry, such as Thomas Hardy. Long’s lack of conjunctions, and with the other words and the title being the only context the viewer is given, it is difficult to reconstruct a sequence of events into a coherent narrative. It is also difficult to form a narrative that may come close to the actual series of events of the walk. Certainly ‘Lifedeath’, in its prosody and rhythmic structure, is not traditionally poetic, however, it is perhaps poetic in its symbolic and atmospheric weight. It is poetic and elegiac in its associations yet expressed through a very prosaic, practical, and concise way.17

However, it would be a mistake to associate or insert Long to closely into the tradition of poetry because his works are at all times documentations of a time-based experience; walking.18 The walk emphasises the centrality of the ‘I’ and incorporates a sense of transience. One should always be mindful that the ‘walk’ in these works is an integral part of their concept. It is crucial to do this because it distinguishes them from poetic descriptions of the landscapes that one finds more prominent in traditional poetry. For example, Philip Larkin, who was Long’s contemporary, talks about the landscape in a more introspective and contemplative way as opposed to through more physical sensations.

The ‘walk’ is a primary distinction from other text-based works of this kind, Long’s is not a single image nor view, it is a walk.19 The viewer’s imagining is therefore four-dimensional; incorporating a temporal aspect into the work. Time thus becomes a more dominant part and therefore gives more weight to the suggestion of the brevity of life.20 In Lifedeath the walk again takes on the metaphor of existing; moving from one point to the next and unable, in a sense, to return.

The idea of the walk as a metaphor for the impossibility of returning to the same place, or as related to the duration of living, finds resonance with Heraclitus. Particularly in his concept of flux and change in the symbol of the river. Although no definitive phrase can be linked to him perhaps the most poetic and linguistically complex translation is “On those stepping into rivers staying the same, other and other waters flow”.21 The implication being that even if one were to return to the same geographical location a certain amount of time would have elapsed and change  taken place. Therefore, as in life, on a walk one can only move forward from beginning to end and never truly return. The idea of the walk as symbolic is found in a lot of Long’s works and particularly with Spring Walk and Lifedeath.

The prosody of Long’s text works read in a way that emphasises the centrality of the walk. Single words and short phrases that read like staccato are key elements in conveying a reverberation of the process of the walk. Although prominent in Lifedeath, it is also apparent in the text works as a whole, due to the very