Since his earliest practice, begun in the late 1960s, Long has based his art on the action of walking in the natural landscape. With his seminal work, A Line Made By Walking 1967 (Tate P07149) – a photograph showing a straight line worn in a field of grass by the repeated movement of the artist’s feet over it – Long established the simple act of walking as a gesture of primordial mark-making fundamental to the creation of art. In the context of late 1960s conceptualism, Long’s act may be seen as a subversion of the traditionally expressive gesture central to painting. Walking is non-expressive, a mechanical movement which permits the body to travel from one point to another. In a similar way, the line joining one point to another is fundamental to the process of drawing – a way of expressing direction and the logical means of connection on which cartography is based. Lines imposed on the environment are usually the result of processes of measuring, map-making and creating roads and are forced by the contours of the earth’s surface to compromise the ideal logic of straightness. Since the 1970s, Long has extended the straight line to encompass the cross, the square, the circle, the spiral, the ellipse, the curved line, the crooked line, the zig-zag, concentric rings, parallel lines, the heap, the dribble, the scratch; every possible means of making marks in nature with what is to hand, using simple actions with the artist’s hands or feet, is covered in Long’s oeuvre. More recently he has gone full circle with the notion of mapping and the trajectory of a body (in this case a body of water) through the landscape by tracing the pathways of rivers and recreating them, much reduced in size, out of gravel or stones.
Water has particular significance for Long as an elemental force which traced lines on the earth’s surface long before any living creature appeared to create paths. The trajectory of a river on the landscape is the result of millennia of watery movement, wearing a path into soil and rock. Determined by the nature of the landscape it traverses, its course from source to mouth is never a straight one. It may zig-zag down rocky gorges or meander sinuously across flat plains; the nature of the line it describes is a product of such geological factors as the form of the landscape, its elements and their susceptibility to erosion and the amount of time the river has been flowing from its source to the sea. Long has used water as a means of making transient marks on the landscape by pouring it in many different locations.
Waterlines 2003 is a work made in this way. In this instance the landscape is in Warli Tribal Land, Maharashtra, India and the water has been poured onto a large area of rock on the bank of a river. Two broad snaking lines extend from the water’s edge towards the rural landscape beyond the rock where a few rustic dwellings cluster below a group of trees. Most unusually for one of Long’s photographs, which are characterised by a total absence of human or animal presence, two standing male figures are visible on the outer edge of the cluster of houses. The group of images Long produced from this visit to India are virtually the first in which a human presence in the landscape is acknowledged, both directly through the appearance of human figures and indirectly through the inclusion of human habitations. Only Nomad Circle 1996, in which a Mongolian nomad sits in the centre of a circle of herd droppings Long assembled on the Mongolian plains, depicts a human being as part of the work. In Nomad Circle, the human figure appears part of the sculpture; in the Maharashtra images, the human element is part of the landscape.
Waterlines 2003 is a unique print. Waterlines 1989 (Tate P11266) is a text-based work recording waterlines poured daily from Long’s water bottle on a walk he made across Portugal and Spain in 1989.
Richard Long: Here and Now and Then, exhibition catalogue, Haunch of Venison, London 2003, reproduced p.41 in colour
Richard Long: Walking the Line, London 2002
R.H. Fuchs, Richard Long, London 1986