Bilbao Circle, 2000
Diameter: 13 m
Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa
Photo: Erika Barahona Ed
© FMGB Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa
“My work is much more about the ideas of freedom and making art from almost nothing, just by walking or leaving footprints. I’ve never been interested in making monuments. I’m an artist of the world”. Richard Long, 2014
Richard Long (Bristol, June 2, 1945) is one of the most representative of the British artists of the Land Art movement. To create his most significant works, Long walks for hours, days or weeks over considerable distances. He then records his journeys in large-format photographs with captions, maps and lists of descriptive terms, which are then exhibited as individual works. The countryside of England, Ireland or Scotland, the mountains of Nepal and Japan, and the plains of Africa, Mexico and Bolivia are some of the places he has traveled through to create his artworks.
In 1967, at the age of just 22, Long went on his first walk across a meadow in Wiltshire, England, crushing the grass as he went over his footprints again and again to form a perfectly straight path that left a well-defined line across the terrain. After his long walk, he took a photograph of the landscape marked by his footprints and left. In this way, he left a testimony of his presence. His idea was to turn the walk and its record into a work of art. Although the artist had only intended to experiment with the imprint he left on nature, this work, entitled A Line Made by Walking (1967), opened up a life’s journey for him that has led him to turn an elementary everyday act like walking into an artistic tool. It was the start of a career that has allowed him to explore and intervene in landscapes around the world, modifying terrains, changing the location of materials in nature itself, or extracting them to bring them inside museums.
There is nothing arbitrary or random about Long’s walks. The artist assigns various tasks to himself along his route, such as walking for a pre-determined distance in a totally straight line, following a river as far as it goes, or collecting stones and then occasionally dropping them along the way. Moreover, Long investigates places in depth as he walks, paying attention to what nature offers him, recording it in images, and impregnating himself with the history of those open spaces and the energy they are charged with.
Guided by a great respect for the nature, flora and fauna of each place, Long never makes significant alterations in the landscapes he traverses. He marks the soil slightly, or modifies or emphasizes some of the natural features already existing by raising stones, making use of wood, or tracing lines. In this way he creates simple sculptures with materials from each place while leaving a testimony of his presence. Long believes this testimony should be ephemeral, and so leaves his works out in the open so that they gradually are dissolved by the wind, rain or tides. The artist tries in this way to deny the dominion of human beings over nature. The photographs of these organic sculptures are the sole remaining proof of their existence after the effects of erosion.
However, the works of Richard Long are not always ephemeral art in the open air. After his long walks, the artist sometimes transfers his personal experiences with nature to sculptures and drawings that he exhibits in museums or art galleries. In these works, he uses mud, rocks, slate, feathers, pine needles, sticks and other rustic materials, which become metaphors for the paths he has traveled. His spirals, circles and lines are often prolonged outside the walls of the venues where they are being shown, drawing and representing the real distances the artist has covered. In Bilbao Circle, a work created in 2000 for the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, the viewer can relive the artist’s travels by walking around the sculpture.
Bilbao Circle is made up of pieces of slate from the quarry of Delabole, a village in Cornwall that boasts the oldest working slate quarry in England. Stone was one of the first materials used by human beings to make tools, and is therefore one of the artist’s favorite materials. Bilbao Circle, like other works made by Long with the same material, is constructed out of relatively short pieces of slate in order to retain their natural character as far as possible. In this way, the artist imposes the circular form, but the natural and characteristic form of each piece of slate is preserved. When seen from above, the work might recall certain circular patterns seen on farmland, or prehistoric formations like Stonehenge. All Long’s works evoke a time marked by a more spiritual relationship between human beings and the land.
Look at the work closely. What do you see? Which words might you use to describe it? Comment on its form, its materials, and its relationship with space. What geometric form can you see in it? What aspects of the work draw your attention?
Long travels to specific places to collect materials for his works. Why do you think he does this? Bilbao Circle is made with slate from Delabole. Find out about the characteristics of this material. Why do you think he might have chosen it? What does it remind you of? If you could touch this sculpture, what would it feel like?
The circle is 13 meters in diameter. Measure the floor of your classroom or playground to get an idea of the size by comparison. How do you suppose the size of things affects our perception of them? And how, then, does the size of an artwork affect the way we look at it? Imagine Bilbao Circle on a much smaller scale. How would your perception of it change? Why do you think Long has chosen to create it on this scale? By walking around the sculpture Bilbao Circle, it is possible to relive the wanderings of the artist himself. Walk around it. What do you feel?
The circular form was imposed by the artist, but the natural and characteristic shape of each piece of slate was preserved. That is, instead of carving or sculpting his works, Long makes them with materials found in nature, which he does not modify. What do you think of the artist’s deliberate decision to make artworks exclusively with unmodified materials drawn directly from nature? What advantages and disadvantages can you see in his working method? Why would he have chosen to do it this way?
Long is one of the artists most representative of Land Art. He never makes representational alterations in the landscapes where he works, but tries to modify nature temporarily, leaving an ephemeral testimony of his presence. What do you think of this working method? Why do you think some artists choose the landscape as an artistic tool for creating their works? What might be the advantages and disadvantages of this artistic medium?
Outdoor sculpture with natural materials
Most of Richard Long’s works were created after his long walks. His personal experiences with nature inspired his sculptures and drawings made with mud, rocks, slate, feathers, pine needles, sticks and other rustic materials. Ask an adult to go with you on a walk to find a place you find especially attractive, if possible in natural surroundings (a wood, park, footpath, etc.). Once there, collect natural materials and make a small sculpture. Like many of Long’s pieces, you can leave the work to become integrated in nature. Take a photo and share your experience in class.
Find an alternative site for the work
Many of Richard Long’s works were made to stand outdoors. Imagine Bilbao Circle was transferred to the town or city where you live. What would you suggest as the best site for it? Why? Compare the place you have chosen with those proposed by your classmates.
Next take photographs of several public spaces where you imagine it might be installed. Upload the photos to a computer and import them to an image editing program like Microsoft Paint or Adobe Photoshop. Use the program to cut out the image of the artwork and try it out in different spaces until you find the best one. You can use this link to download the image of Long’s work.
Hold a class discussion. How might the work have changed by being placed in a different context? What has drawn your attention about the works of other class members?
Make a Richard Long artwork with your classmates
Watch the video made for the 20th Anniversary of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. In groups of five or six, search on the internet for different works created by Richard Long throughout his career. Choose a work you particularly like and make it with your own bodies. If necessary, you can dress in some special way required by the piece. After composing the work with your bodies, reflect on how you perceive it now. Has your way of looking at it changed after experiencing it? You can ask someone to take photos of you and show them in class alongside the artist’s work.
Land Art: artistic practice that consists of an intervention by the artist in a specific natural location, creating an artwork that is integrated in its environment and explores its relationship with the topography.
Ephemeral art: the creation of artworks that exist for only a short time before they disappear or are destroyed.