Presented as part of the Tate and National Galleries of Scotland’s ARTIST ROOMS project, Richard Long’s current retrospective at Gallery Oldham brings together photographs, screen-prints, sculpture and books which span the major British land artist’s early forays into the form and his later-career work. Through encouraging his viewer to reflect on their relationship to space and time, and their role in making meaning of a work of art, Long’s practice has been integral to the development of an interdisciplinary, phenomenologically-inflected and global form of conceptualism.
In the art historian Amelia Jones’ writings, we see fleshed out the complex history and roots of the practice of installation and land art in the minimalism, body art and performance art of the 1960s and 1970s. Imposing corporeal and conceptual directives on the spectator, these later movements travel the path laid out by Agnes Martin, Bas Jan Ader and Carolee Schneemann, among others: calling for a re-appraisal of the art object, its institutions and the audiences which coalesce around them. Long’s practice can be similarly situated within the milieu laid out in Jones’ essay.
It could be said that it is not within the objects presented as part of Long’s exhibition that politicisation inheres, but in the very experience of trying to make meaning of them. The audience are encouraged to problematise their encounter and the space in which it occurs with respect to their own bodies and the perspectives that they engender. Entering into a relationship with this work, the viewer completes the ‘circuit’ upon which meaning is dependent. These works cannot be entered into, but only via bodily engagement, and the privileges and subjugations to which they are submitted. As the French phenomenologist and philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty proposed, it is through the body that we directly experience the world and others around us. As a consequence of Merleau-Ponty’s thought, we find ourselves engaged in a constitutive act of inter-subjective meaning-making and interpretation with those around us. The world is not wholly our own.
The same concerns are present throughout the work contained in the retrospective: subservience to rather than mastery over a site, as in ‘A Sculpture Left by the Tide,’ (1970); an engagement with embodied habitation of time and space alongside others, as in ‘A Line of Sticks in Somerset,’ (1974); and an investigation of the link between language and being, as in the artist’s books and screen-prints. Long’s handling of this subject matter differs from that of his contemporaries, but the results remain congruent: the problematisation of the notions of the gallery as a blank slate, of the audience as mere perceiver, and of artist-as-producer.
In the context of Long and his contemporaries, the white cube is dead. In its place there exists the real world, into which the gallery apparatus is inseparably intertwined as part of a cultural and politico-economic framework. Writing in 1997, Korean-American curator Miwon Kwon notes that through this revitalised conceptualisation we ought to be drawn to critically reflect on the relationship between artist, institutional apparatus, audience and wider civic condition.
By presenting not the work itself but its documentation – the ‘object’ having been destroyed after Long snaps a photograph of it, or ceasing to exist the moment the artist completes his action – a subversion of art as commodity occurs; the work is the process. The viewer (and collector) is privy only to the endlessly-duplicable evidence of its existence at a given time. Even in ‘Cornish Slate Ellipse’ (2009), a gargantuan sculpture which fills the gallery floor and demands circumnavigation, what we witness is the result of a process of meticulous arrangement and not some fixed product.
It is no small irony then that we see next to each work a placard bearing the name of their previous owner, curator and collector: Anthony d’Offay. In light of the allegations of sexual harassment levelled against d’Offay, and the aforementioned semantic commitments of the work in this exhibition, it is impossible to not feel that the impetus and historical raison of installation and land art has been missed. A consequence of Long’s practice is that we are encouraged to question and challenge the daily reality of working in the arts for many of our colleagues and friends; to begin to reconstruct the gallery as a true ‘community space’ in the words of the American performance and installation artist Vito Acconci, and to move beyond reductive notions of the work of art built on their pedigree as assets. Until we begin to do this, the work of Long and his contemporaries is rendered inert, the discourse around them mere lip-service.
ARTIST ROOMS: Richard Long, Gallery Oldham, Oldham. 26 May 2018 – 15 September 2018
Michael D’Este is a writer and postgraduate student in Modern and Contemporary Literature based in Manchester