Thursday, 14 May 2009

Richard Long – Michael Craig-Martin

The artist Michael Craig-Martin talks with Richard Long
from The Independent, 8 May 2009

Michael Craig-Martin: Richard, when I first saw your work in the late 1960s, it had many radical and original characteristics – a completely new approach to landscape, the use of simple unaltered natural materials – but the most striking to me was the way it used the floor. Do you remember when this first came to you as a way of working?

Richard Long: I would say a seminal moment when I was a student in Bristol was the Gulbenkian show at the Tate in 1964. There was a piece by Isamu Noguchi that really impressed me. It was a very minimal work, just a pure convex shape on the floor. It really knocked me out. When I came back to my space at the college I made a stepping-stone sculpture to walk on, different plaster shapes on the floor, mostly flat stable ones you could step on and a few unstable ones you couldn't. And then after that I made the plaster path with the walking man.

MCM: I remember speaking about your work to Tony Caro in the early 1970s. He was clearly very perplexed because he couldn't understand how you could make sculpture in which you did not assemble things – to make a construction, essentially.
RL: Yes, I think we probably had about four words between us throughout the whole two years I was there. But the lucky break for me was just to be at St Martin's. After I'd been thrown out of Bristol, Frank Martin gave me the chance to go there and I landed in a great peer group. I remember very clearly the first week, Hamish [Fulton] in his ironed white shirt and his Marlboro cigarettes in the top pocket, very cool – and George [Passmore], it was like going to school with Oscar Wilde. He was clearly a genius from the word go, eccentric and original in his life, his humour, his stories... So we didn't need any of those famous artists teaching there [laughs].

MCM: And you could do your own thing?
RL: In a very free way. The only constraint we had was to sign the book every morning to say where we were working. So sometimes I would say "on the roof" or the one time I just put "cycling". So I was making my work really for my fellow students, not the tutors, who were disinterested, except for Peter Atkins and Phillip King. Whereas, after I left, as soon as I hit Düsseldorf there was a group of artists that immediately appreciated what I was up to, especially Carl Andre. So he was tremendous, like a moral support, as was Konrad Fischer, and he has been all my life, really.

MCM: Did you think of yourself as a Conceptual artist? Do you?
RL: Well, I think I'm a product of my time, which also includes Minimalism, because I do like very simple, pure things. Quiet things.

MCM: I always think of your art as one of understatement.
RL: Doing almost nothing. Also there was that moment in the 1960s when the idea of filling the world with more and more objects became questionable. And, perhaps more in hindsight, there are connections with Arte Povera. You could argue that A Line Made by Walking [1967] is the ultimate Arte Povera work, it's made of nothing and disappears to nothing. It has no substance, and yet it's a real artwork.

MCM: When I think about your work in the landscape, it's never about domination, it's always about trying to identify with the place.
RL: It's like a dialogue, I would say.

MCM: It's not trying to conquer nature.
RL: Not like Land art. It's a different philosophy. It's about scale in a more radical way, not the ownership of the land. I think my landscape work explores a rich territory between the Land art of monuments and machine-made earthworks, and at the other extreme, the position of "leave no trace". Also, I think that the walking mileages have the biggest scale anyway. I suppose I'm English in the sense that I'm part of a culture of public rights of way and footpaths. So I have a freedom to use the land without needing to own it, just by walking on it.

MCM: Yes, just touching the surface of the Earth. I've always thought of American artists' attitudes to the land as typically American – a frontier spirit, the need to overcome nature in order to survive. Your approach has always been to go with nature.
RL: Yes, and also they were only using their American landscapes. They do have great landscapes and a big country. But you can't imagine Heizer going to India.

MCM: When you first started to go out into those places, you presented them in a very innocent way.
RL: Mmm... simple.

MCM: For me it's an identification with you and only you being there.
RL: That's right. Just at that time and place, often in solitude. And to be in those places is sometimes part of a bigger experience, like making a work on the top of Kilimanjaro in 1969, so the art is just the tip of the iceberg, or the mountain in that case...

MCM: When you have done something modest at a place that's very difficult to get to. You're one of the first people who initiated the idea of a walk as art, or a simple text...
RL: Or that a work could be made anywhere. On a mountain top, or it could disappear. Or, it could exist but no one else could find it. Or a local person could see it but not recognise it as art, or identify a stone I had placed on the road from another stone. I was really interested in all these different ways I could put my work in the world. And always in a simple way.

MCM: By marking your presence...
RL: ...or walking down the road. Walking across Ireland, putting a stone on the road at every mile along the way: 164 miles, 164 stones [1969]. If you put all those stones together it's a big work, but because it's spread out in space, it becomes invisible. Well, not invisible, but unnoticeable, which is different. And those stones are still out there somewhere, they haven't disappeared. So, you only know this work, which is equally a walk and a sculpture, through the information, the story, the artwork.

MCM: Also, the idea that a work exists in time... not just in space, these are different ideas, about how art can be ephemeral.
RL: People make a big deal about ephemerality and, in a way, I was never that interested in it. The most important thing for me was to make whatever I wanted to make. And if the result was ephemeral, so be it. But some works did exist for a particular or specific amount of time, like A Sculpture Left by the Tide [1970] in Cornwall. The idea of that was that the sea leaves its natural pattern of seaweed on the beach every time the tide goes out and has done for millions of years, and my work imposed another pattern in that cycle for the space of one tide, for six hours. Sometimes the temporary can illustrate the timeless.

MCM: One of the things that has struck me over the years is how much an artist's work, in order to be sustained over a lifetime, requires engagement in activities he or she finds naturally pleasurable – turning pleasure into work. Surely that's true of you?
RL: Of course, an important aspect of my work is just the pleasure of doing it, for me a walk is a great thing to do. It can feel like being outside the normal difficulties of life. Sometimes on a walk I can feel intensely alive or free or unencumbered or simply happy. Basically, a road walk is walking all day and sleeping all night, and in hindsight the time of the walk seems to have passed very quickly as an almost out-of-life experience. I love the simple pleasures of eating, getting fit or finding a new campsite or B&B each night. I realise all this might be outside the experience or interest of a lot of people, which is fair enough.

MCM: Are you interested in the Sublime as an idea?
RL: No, not really. But I'm interested to experience beautiful or powerful places like Kilimanjaro and use them in my work. Sometimes the best works are made in a sort of state of grace. Often, they're made instinctively, the right idea in the right place at the right time, for whatever reasons. And often I'm in that place almost by chance, just by being on a wilderness walk. So I could plan that walk, but not that moment or place or conditions. I like being an opportunist. I need the element of chance.

MCM: It suddenly occurred to me – you've had a unique experience of the world, haven't you? Travelling to all those places.
RL: I wouldn't put myself up there. But anyway, I've done what I've done.

MCM: You've travelled in these places in such an intense way.
RL: Well, I've used them to make art.

MCM: Which is different from other people going for other purposes.
RL: Of course. That's the point of my work. The history of mankind has been about movement. People migrated on foot out of Africa around the world. And nomads and explorers and traders and writers and poets and now tourists have all walked and travelled. I've just done the same but as an artist. But I've never particularly wanted to walk on famous footpaths like the Pennine Way or the Pilgrims Way, for example. It interests me that it is still possible to make walks for original reasons, in new ways.

MCM: And that's the real possibility of art isn't it?
RL: I think it's somehow the point of art, to do things no one else has done. It's the idea of originality – it's not the only point of art but I think it's an important aspect of it. In all walks of life, in mathematics or philosophy or music, it's human nature to reinvent the world. Always standing on the shoulders of giants. A few years ago I made an interesting work called Transference [2003]. It was based on a phenomenon in subatomic physics whereby a particle can act on the behaviour of another particle so as to create a symmetry of itself, over a relatively vast distance. I first made a walk on Dartmoor recording various things, and then later on a completely different walk in Japan. I deliberately looked out for and could find certain things that were the same as on Dartmoor, or did repeat, or I could make them repeat, even in the same order of occurrence. So it's about a symmetry of places, or events, on different sides of the world, and universal phenomena. So even though I am just making walks there's a lot to say about them!

MCM: I've always thought of you as a classical artist rather than a romantic. Is that how you see yourself?
RL: Yes. Many people, mostly in cities, have the wrong idea that anything not urban is somehow romantic. One reason I did my straight 10-mile line on Exmoor was because it was a practical place to do it. I work on Dartmoor because it's quite near where I live and because it is possible to walk a near-perfect line or circle on the moor for a whole day, for example, which you couldn't do in the Alps because it's too mountainous. I was also aware of a romantic tradition already covered in art and also in mountain and wilderness photography, like Ansel Adams or the culture of climbing books, so some of the early walks were deliberately presented in a cool or classical idea-only way. My work was never about the subject of beauty. If the idea is good the beauty looks after itself.

MCM: One of the other things I was thinking about was the physical state of the world now, the degradation of the planet. Is the world very different from when you started?
RL: I think the short answer is no. In geological time, the Scottish Highlands or Dartmoor, for example, look unchanged from 40 years ago. There's this idea that the world is crammed with people but in my particular experience it's still empty landscapes. I do think nature is stronger than we are. But that's not to say we should not pay attention to look after the planet. The very fact Dartmoor is the way it is now, treeless and empty moorland and a great place to walk, is actually because of the effects and depredations of all the mining in the Middle Ages. I've even made a sculpture using the Tinner's stones.

MCM: There's something you said years ago – that every artist is a local artist.
RL: Yes, I mean we all start from local beginnings. I went from my back garden, to places around Bristol, the towpath and mud banks of the Avon... and then when I was at St Martin's I would cycle out to Epping Forest to make works, or I did a couple of walks in France, for example, where I took the ferry to Boulogne and walked to Calais and came back on the boat [laughs]. Then, the year after I left St Martin's, I took a plane to Kenya to make works on the equator and East Africa. So, it was a gradual expansion.

MCM: But the roots of the work were in, are in, Bristol.
RL: Well, growing up there, the big limestone cliffs and the caves and the spring tides and the mud banks. So, the forces of nature were all around.

MCM: One of the other things that interests me is that you found your language comparatively young. In some way, all that had been formed by the time you were 16 and somehow you just kind of...
RL: ...continued it. Like George... he told me he never played games but he had this hacking jacket of Newton Abbot tweed that he would just wear at games lessons, smoking his cigarette, lying along the touchline. Or Andy Warhol was drawing shoes, or Bob Dylan grew up listening to obscure radio stations in Hibbing, Minnesota.

MCM: The interests were there, and they stay with you.
RL: Yes. I was doing all this work but it took me 10 or 20 years to understand what I was doing, in a way [laughs].

MCM: You and I come from a time when the personality of the artist was not a central concern.
RL: Well, I would say our generation was partly a reaction against Pop art, the cult of the personality, like Warhol or Hockney, who were the media stars of the 1960s. I partly reacted against that, I was quite keen that people didn't know what I looked like, and that the work had to speak for itself, it didn't have to rely on hype and all that media stuff, which was probably to its disadvantage, because 15 years later I realised that maybe that's why no one understood it, because I never talked about it at the time. I think the only reason I wrote my statements was because, unfortunately, no one else was saying what I thought needed to be said. Slightly contradicting myself here, when I came back from Kenya in 1969 I wrote a letter to The Guardian saying that I had put a sculpture on the top of Kilimanjaro. I thought it was a newsworthy item, you know, highest sculpture in the world, it must be worth a small mention on page four.

MCM: But nobody mentioned it.
RL: In that respect it's a different art-world now, it's rock'n'roll, it sells newspapers, which is great. Far more people are interested in art now than they were in the 1970s. For me it was exciting to think that while the visual language of the 1960s was psychedelic stuff and Pop art, I was walking lines in fields. It was private, or deeply independent of the culture then. Making my work, walking, is a solitary thing. It's not social or collaborative, and I don't rely on other people. Even in my home life, I don't have people working for me, I can't delegate. I don't even have a secretary or an assistant, I'm the last of the amateurs [laughs]. So, in many ways, I'm hopeless at all that, being social. Having said that, I've shared great walks with Hamish Fulton, walking friend and walking artist and a great companion on the road or in the mountains. Our first big trip, to South America in 1972, travelling in Bolivia, Peru and Chile, was one of the best, rich and relaxed and innocent and ambitious; with a lot of humour, it was a fantastic experience. We were light on our feet. I have amazing memories of all our walks together.

MCM: You think of yourself as a modernist, is that right?
RL: Yes.

MCM: But we clearly live in a postmodern world.
RL: Of course. All things move on.

MCM: There was a thing Marcel Duchamp said, that in the future the only way to be an artist would be to be completely secret.
RL: That's smart.

MCM: He probably got that right.
RL: Whereas Gilbert and George started underground and have worked very hard to be overground.

MCM: Or succeeded in taking the underground to the foreground.
RL: That's a good point. Speaking about them, they have a populist view of their work. But I think art's more important than that. It can be anything, that's the magic and freedom of it, to be as obscure or difficult or elitist or quiet or unseen or inaccessible...

MCM: Yes, and some of it can be very popular and others not...
RL: But I have to say, even in my own work, which is on a much lower level of exposure than theirs, I'm always amazed that if you're doing something interesting it finds its way into the world. People do know about it.

MCM: It strikes a chord, it has a life.
RL: But I completely accept that more people are interested in urban culture and life than landscapes. Also, figurative art is obviously more popular and accessible, although I've got no intellectual interest in it whatsoever. Music is the really universal art-form though. Recently, I heard Leonard Cohen say "Thank you for keeping my songs alive." It is the public that receives the work, that's the point of making it.

MCM: When I started I tried not to have one way of working, not to have a style, to allow myself as many possibilities as possible. I found that frustrating, jumping from one thing to another, but now I've fixed on my language I'm able to do a whole range of things.
RL: So you need a good language. You could say Van Gogh was painting the same paintings all his life.

MCM: But if he'd only done one, we wouldn't know about it.
RL: I always liked the quote from the Johnny Cash film. One of his group said "We only sound like the way we do because that's the only way we can play." I often think, if I had just made A Line Made by Walking it would have been a good work in its own right. But the fact that I've repeated or continued that idea for many years, walking lines in different ways, for different reasons, in different landscapes, that's part of the life of that work. The cumulative effect of all the other works consolidates and informs that first idea, which becomes a serious point of view which I can follow and use all my life.

MCM: It is principally through the body of one's work that each individual piece gains legibility as well as credibility. One's persistence forces others to take one seriously!
RL: Our back catalogues get bigger and bigger, don't they? [laughs] But I do feel my history is a positive thing. I mean, anything I do now is informed by the experience and memories of past walks and works. In theory, I could re-make the daisies [England, 1968] at any time, for example. I like the idea that some works have a freer, or more democratic status than a traditional sculpture. They can be re-made, re-mixed, or re-played, almost like music. They can be kept alive, like a song or a Japanese rock garden, which is newly raked each morning.

this interview is also published in: Richard Long – Heaven and Earth, Tate Publishing, London, 2009. Interview took place in November 2008

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