A meandering trail of white limestone cuts across the Bristol Downs like a line across a page. In its artless form, its earthly material and its outdoor setting, this simple intervention is a beautiful précis of Richard Long’s lifelong love letter to England’s southwest. Flourishes of grass have already sprouted between the stones in the weeks since the Bristol artist first installed the line across his childhood stomping grounds, and as much as ten of its 170 metres have been moved from one end to the other by a handful of interferers. Created on the occasion of a major new exhibition of Long’s work at Bristol’s Arnolfini, Boyhood Line speaks to the origins of Long’s art and life, indistinguishable from one another and so bound up in the southern landscape.
Richard Long is a wanderer, and walking in its many variants – from epic wilderness walks to short road walks – is the backbone of Turner Prize-winner’s work. Whilst a student at Central Saint Martin’s in 1967, then 22 years old, he walked back and forth in a straight line in the countryside and photographed the trail of trampled grass. Poised between performance and sculpture, the unassuming work is now a landmark in contemporary art. In his strikingly simple outdoor sculptures, photography and sparse text works that double as travelogues, you can see minimalism through the lens of German romanticism, which found an almost religious wonder in dramatic landscapes and scenery. Time and Space, which opened last week, is the artist’s first comprehensive show staged in his home city for 15 years, and brings together some of his favourite pieces dating from 1967 to the present.
The exhibition opens with a series of pared-back text works alongside the latest in many primitive murals Long has been making on gallery walls for years using mud from the River Avon. Mostly stenciled in his favoured Gill Sans font, the texts document walks that either began or ended in Bristol, such as Red Walk from 1986. For this piece the artist embarked on a walk from Bristol to Dawlish and made note of everything red that crossed his path. In his gestural mud works, like Muddy Water Falls, Long uses his fingers to rapidly cover the top half of the wall in swirls of river mud before allowing gravity to take its effect, creating streaks and drips down the gallery wall. Together they underscore Bristol and the surrounding countryside as protagonists in the artist’s oeuvre whilst bringing together the two defining poles of body and mind in his way of working.
Upstairs a monumental new sculpture after which the show is named takes over the entire central gallery, flanked by two smaller galleries that explore some of Long’s photoworks. Long’s love of formalism means the most basic of symbols, from the line to the circle to the cross, have become recurring motifs throughout his practice. In keeping with this trend, Time and Space is a right-angled cross made from slabs of Cornish slate that sits squarely in the gallery like a place marker. The sculpture is a fitting namesake for the exhibition, which shows Long to be a man who measures time and space in the simplest and most profoundly human way: through footprints both literal and metaphorical. Long’s interventions, out in the landscape and in the gallery, are a form of mark making that imposes human rationale on the chaos of the natural world.
Adjacent to Time and Space is the recreated circular floor work Bristol 1967/2015 – first made in Bristol in 1967 and then taken to different places, including The Downs in Bristol and the Irish countryside – accompanied by photographs of it in different locations. In the other flanking space are photographs of various other landscape sculptures in situ. Lastly, on the top floor of Arnolfini are new fingerprint and mud paintings on driftwood; far less compelling works the artist creates in the intimate hub of his kitchen rather than the great outdoors.
Through no necessary fault of the work itself, the exhibition is lacking in something. Guided neither by chronology nor narrative nor theme, Time and Space leaves something to be desired, and coupled with Arnolfini’s architecture which, generous though it is, creates an awkwardness in one’s movements. There is little flow. Perhaps this would not bother me so much had I not last seen Long’s work in the beautiful, cavernous space of Berlin’s Hamburger Banhof, where numerous rock sculptures and an enormous mud mural harmoniously filled the terminal of the converted train station. In contrast, Time and Space at Arnolfini tends to lack some of the subtle drama I have come to expect from Richard Long. The show finds some redemption in Boyhood Line. The offsite commission threads over a patch of The Downs as a wandering underscore to Long’s career, leading us back and forth between his beginnings and his present.
Time and Space is on show at Arnolfini in Bristol from July 31 to November 15.