Cornish Slate Ellipse 2009 is a sculpture made of cut pieces of slate of various sizes positioned on the floor in the form of an ellipse over seven metres in length and over three metres wide. The pieces of slate are all roughly cuboid in shape and approximately ten centimetres high when placed on their sides so that the top surface of the sculpture is even. They are placed tightly together in a haphazard though evenly spaced pattern. The slate is predominantly grey in colour though some of the stones contain visible rust-coloured iron deposits, while the strata of the slate are visible on the upward facing profile of each piece. Since the individual pieces of slate are cut at a quarry with a saw or blade they vary in length, measuring between twelve and thirty-eight centimetres.
The slate was acquired from the Delabole Slate Company in Cornwall where Long had been sourcing slate for more than twenty-five years before making this work (see Tufnell 2007, p.43). Other works made using this slate include Stone Line 1980 (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh) and South Bank Circle 1991 (Tate T07159). Each time Cornish Slate Ellipse is displayed it must be created anew. The first stage of this process is to set the shape by marking the parameters of the ellipse on the floor using a piece of stretched string. Thereafter the stones are placed on their sides within the oval. Particularly solid and stable stones are used to delineate the edges. The internal space is filled with stones placed irregularly and asymmetrically in twists and turns in a flowing pattern. This process means that the work is composed slightly differently each time it is exhibited. The sculpture is installed by the artist where possible, although it can also be done by art handlers following the artist’s instructions. When in storage the piece consists of 4,237 kilograms of slate, but not all the pieces have to be used to construct the piece. Having more pieces of slate than is required allows the installer to choose which stones to use and to vary their placement.
Long began making floor sculptures early in his career and cites a pivotal moment in 1964 as inspiration for his floor work:
I would say the seminal moment when I was a student in Bristol was the Gulbenkian show at the Tate in 1964. There was a piece by Isamu Noguchi that really impressed me. It was a very minimal work, just a pure convex shape on the floor. It really knocked me out. When I came back to my space at the college I made a stepping-stone sculpture to walk on, different plaster shapes on the floor, mostly flat stable ones you could step on and a few unstable ones you couldn’t. And then after that I made the plaster path with the walking man.
(Cited in Wallis 2009, p.172.)
Long’s early floor sculptures are usually circular or linear in form rather than elliptical. The ellipse began to appear in the artist’s work from the late 1990s, not only in floor sculptures but also in mud paintings on walls, on floors and on circular stones.
Cornish Slate Ellipse combines order and disorder, the former expressed by the strict parameters of the clean-edged ellipse, the latter by the natural imperfections of the rough cut pieces of slate and by their random arrangement. As Long says: ‘You could say that my work is also a balance between the patterns of nature and the formalism of human, abstract ideas like lines and circles. It is where my human characteristics meet the natural forces and patterns of the world, and that is really the kind of subject of my work.’ (Cited in Richard Long (ed.), Richard Long: Walking in Circles, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 1991, p.250.)
Richard Long (ed.), Richard Long: Walking the Line, London 2002.
Ben Tufnell (ed.), Richard Long: Selected Statements & Interviews, London 2007.
Clarrie Wallis (ed.), Richard Long: Heaven and Earth, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2009.
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