To create his art, Richard Long walks hundreds of miles for days, even weeks at a time, through uncultivated areas of land: the countryside of England, Ireland, and Scotland; the mountains of Nepal and Japan; the plains of Africa, Mexico, and Bolivia. He documents these journeys with captioned large-scale photographs, maps, and lists of descriptive terms, which are exhibited as individual works. While traveling, Long sets specific tasks for himself, such as traversing an absolutely straight line for a predetermined distance, following the side of a river wherever it may lead, or picking up and then dropping stones at certain intervals along the way. While on these trips, the artist interacts with the landscape by creating modest sculptures from indigenous materials, thus attesting to his presence in the land. Circles or lines—Long’s signature motifs—rubbed into the ground by repeated footprints or composed of assembled stones, driftwood, or seaweed are eventually dissolved by the wind, the rain, and rising tides, thus negating human dominance over nature. His photographs remain the only evidence of these organic sculptures after erosion has run its course. Unlike other artists who have manipulated the landscape to create Earthworks, such as Walter De Maria, Michael Heizer, Robert Morris, Dennis Oppenheim, Robert Smithson, and James Turrell, Long does not significantly alter the terrain by digging, burrowing, sculpting, or constructing. He simply adjusts nature’s placement of rocks and wood to subtly demarcate geometric shapes.
Long translates his deeply personal experiences in the wilderness into sculptures and mud drawings that are created for exhibition spaces and private collections. Pieces composed of flint, slate, feathers, pine needles, sticks, and other rustic materials become metaphors for the paths taken on his ramblings: the spirals, circles, and lines, if extended beyond the gallery walls, would trace actual distances traveled by the artist. The sculptures are not, therefore, representations of nature per se but rather aesthetic documents of Long’s engagement with the land and poetic evocations of the beauty and grandeur of the earth. Such is the case with Red Slate Circle, which consists of 474 stones from a New York State quarry. When it is installed in the Guggenheim’s rotunda, the monumental ring echoes the building’s unique spiral while conjuring images of vast canyons, still lakes, and stone pathways leading into the distance.