This black and white photograph depicts a view of a beach, the sea and the sky. The foreground shoreline occupies the bottom half the image, while the calm sea stretches to the dark horizon which parallels the picture edge near the top of the photograph. On the beach is a sculpture made of driftwood, laid out flat in the shape of a circle. Below the photograph on the off-white mount are the words ‘A CIRCLE IN ALASKA’ handwritten in red pencil and, below this, ‘BERING STRAIT DRIFTWOOD ON THE ARCTIC CIRCLE’ in graphite pencil. Beneath both of these inscriptions is the date ‘1977’.
The photograph documents a temporary sculpture made by Long in the landscape. A Circle in Alaska was made using locally sourced pieces of driftwood of irregular sizes, packed neatly together in a circular formation. It was made in the Arctic Circle, overlooking the Bering Strait, in Kotzabue on the western coast of Alaska. This sea strait, approximately fifty-three miles wide, connects Russia and Alaska and represents the narrowest point between the Asian and North American continents. Long travelled to this remote region with his friend the artist Hamish Fulton in 1977, recalling in an interview the circumstances which led up to the creation of the work:
we went back into Fairbanks and thought of getting a little plane up north, up to Point Barrow. But the girl on the ticket desk said ... ‘why don’t you go over to the west coast, to Kotzabue, where it’s really good tundra landscape but the local Eskimo are much more friendly?’ So it was really by those circumstances that we ended up on the west coast of Alaska which is how I came to be close to the Arctic Circle, which gave me the chance to make a driftwood circle actually on the Arctic Circle.
(Cited in Tufnell 2007, pp.59–60.)
At this period in his career Long was drawn increasingly to make work in remote geographical locations, as he notes: ‘I had a particular desire in the seventies to make my circles, and also the straight hundred mile walks, in different types of landscapes around the world.’ (Cited in Sleeman, Richard Long: Mirage, London 1998, p.13).
For Long, the driftwood circle resonated with the context – the Arctic Circle – in which it was made, resulting in a satisfying symbiosis between the work and the landscape. However, circles are a common feature of Long’s work. When working in landscapes the artist makes work using materials found naturally in the immediate vicinity, a practice that has produced circles made from stone, such as A Circle in Ireland 1975 (Tate AL00203), wood, including A Circle in Alaska, and even cacti, such as Circle in Africa 1978 (Tate AL00218). He has also used the circle as a shape around which to construct a walk, as in Concentric Days 1996 (Tate AR00213). Long has noted: ‘A circle is beautiful, powerful, but also neutral and abstract. I realised it could serve as a constant form, always with new content. A circle could carry a different walking idea, or collection of stones, or be in a different place, each time.’ (Cited in Alison Sleeman, Richard Long: Mirage, London 1998, p.13.)
Richard Long (ed.), Richard Long: Walking in Circles, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 1991, p.250, reproduced p.82.
Ben Tufnell (ed.), Richard Long: Selected Statements & Interviews, London 2007, pp.59–60.
Clarrie Wallis (ed.), Richard Long: Heaven and Earth, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2009, p.46, reproduced p.6.
Ruth Burgon and Katya Johnson
The University of Edinburgh
The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.