Silence Circle Big Bend Texas is a large, framed, black and white photograph depicting a circle cleared in a stony area, punctuated by thorn bushes, in front of low, dry mountains. Under the photograph the first two words of the title, hand-written in red capital letters, are accompanied by a short descriptive text, in black capital letters, over three lines. It reads: ‘a resting place on a ten day walk/ along the Rio Grande and in the Chisos Mountains/ Big Bend Texas 1990’. Both in form and content, this work closely resembles an earlier work by Long, Circle in Africa 1978 (Tate T06890), a photograph of a circle of cactus branches assembled on a mountain in Malawi. Long has commented: ‘I think circles have belonged in some way or other to all people at all times. They are universal and timeless, like the image of a human hand. For me, that is part of their emotional power, although there is nothing symbolic or mystical in my work.’ (Quoted in Friis-Hansen, p30.) Making a circle, either by assembling or by clearing away natural elements, is one way for the artist to leaving his mark, albeit transitory, on the landscape he has passed through.
Long’s work is based on walking outdoors in nature, often in remote locations. The documentation of his walks, which takes a variety of different forms, constitutes the visible manifestation of the artwork, which for Long exists as much in the making of it as in its end product. His first ‘walk’ was performed when he was a student at Central St Martin’s School of Art, London (1966-8). For A Line Made by Walking, England 1967 (Tate P07149) Long repeatedly trod a path in a field, wearing down the grass in a line which he then photographed. This work anticipated two fundamental themes in Long’s work: the action of the walk (as an archetypal symbol of human movement) and its residue (the artist’s intervention on the landscape). Since A Line... photography has provided one of the principal means for the documentation of Long’s actions in and upon the natural landscape. He has stated: ‘To walk across a country is both a measure of the country itself (its size, shape and terrain) and also of myself (how long it takes me and not somebody else).’ (Quoted in Richard Long, p.6.) Maps and text have provided other means of documentation, as in Sound Circle 1990 (Tate T06471).
Silence Circle is unusual in that it has involved a process of clearing rather than assembly to create it. This way of making a ‘sculpture’ is only possible in a particular type of terrain, since it requires a loose top layer to be cleared and a uniform layer underneath to be uncovered. The use of the word ‘silence’ in the title brings additional dimensions to the work. Long typically constructs descriptive titles combining such concrete elements as place, geometric form and materials used, sometimes using a verb describing such actions as ‘walking’ and ‘sleeping’. Here his activity of clearing away the scree-like stones has resulted in a space of emptiness and stillness, or silence as described in the title. Whether this silence is internal to the artist or external to the space and how long the period of silence may have lasted or may have the potential to last, Long has left deliberately ambiguous.
Richard Long, exhibition catalogue, São Paulo Bienal 1994, British Council 1994
Richard R. Brettell, Dana Friis-Hansen, Richard Long: Circles Cycles Mud Stones, exhibition catalogue, Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston 1996
Richard Long: Walking in Circles, exhibition catalogue, South Bank Centre, London 1991, reproduced p.141
November 2000/November 2001