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A Line in Scotland

Richard Long is one of Britain’s most influential living artists. Based on the artist’s walks from the mid-1960s, his work takes the form of photographs, maps, drawings and sculptures (generally lines or circles constructed from natural materials). A new exhibition at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art (June 30 – October 21 2007) will span the artist’s career and feature a number of new works created specially for the show…

For more than 40 years, Long has insisted on his art’s simplicity. This goes against the grain of modern life, which is one of the reasons why Long’s work is worth returning to. The limitations are part of the pleasure. Simplicity is reason in itself. A new book, of the artist’s collected statements and interviews, returns again and again to this same basic premise, the same plea to keep things uncomplicated, in our approach as much as his.

Famously, Long walks, though he has been known to cycle and to travel by kayak. He goes in straight lines and in circles. Pacing back and forth, like a writer in a room in search of an idea, Long once walked the grass flat in an English field. He has also circumnavigated mountain ranges, used dried riverbeds as paths, and followed his compass and a line ruled on a map to find his way across Dartmoor and the high plains of the Canadian prairie.

Once, on a 15-day walk in Lapland, Long turned 207 stones to point into the wind. Sometimes, a text on a gallery wall is the only record that the artist went somewhere with some small, entirely useless yet significant aim in mind. More often, he photographs what he has done and the places he has been. These photographs – always using the same camera, the same lens – are often accompanied by a few lines of text. They are more than just a record.

Ireland, Scotland, the Australian outback, Kilimanjaro, the Himalayas, Berkshire: the exoticism of the location isn’t what matters, but it helps. Looking at Long’s photographs in a book, we imagine journeys we shall never take, places where we shall never stand. There is a sadness in this. The words Long uses are like the stones and sticks he picks up along the way. They are descriptive, declarative and plain, and just a few of them put next to one another are enough to take the reader somewhere else. The line “Earthquake in the forest” is dizzying enough. Long insists his words are not poems. I guess for him they might be sculpture, which is what the US conceptualist Lawrence Weiner also says about his own use of words on the wall. Or perhaps words for Long are a kind of drawing.

But the walk’s the thing. Long has fallen in rivers, narrowly avoided being shot by a farmer in Montana, and been beset by natural and unnatural hazards of all kinds, but the drama is mostly kept off stage, out of sight, a traveller’s tale we are not privileged to hear.

The Guardian