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 through the repetitive use of modular activities mimicking systems of ordering and measurement. Walking is non-expressive, a mechanical movement which permits the body to travel from one point to another. It is a means of mapping a line on the landscape – the origin of all roads and of means of measuring the world. In his art Long uses walking as a means of travel – to places where he may create transient works on the landscape documented by photography or words. And, following a poetic logic unique to the artist, walking in Long’s oeuvre may also become a means to inscribe an invisible pathway, generating a new way of portraying a landscape.
Watershed is a work of this kind. It describes a walk Long made from Bristol Bridge, in the centre of Bristol where he lives, to London Bridge, in the heart of London’s City. The logic of this action is that, in moving from the valley of the River Avon to that of the River Thames, the walk crosses a watershed. Bristol is situated near the mouth of the river Avon on the west coast of England while London is near the Thames River estuary on England’s east coast, establishing a kind of symmetry. Watershed describes this walk and the landscape it traverses using text. As is standard in Long’s text-works, the words are printed in the Gill Sans typeface in capital letters. The title is deep turquoise blue, a colour similar to that of the sea and the sky on a brilliant sunny day. Centred below the title, the text in black reads: ‘River Avon to River Thames/ A walk of 120 miles in 39 hours from Bristol Bridge to London Bridge/ A day night day night walk // England 1992’. Long’s words provide information which is specific but lacking in precise detail. Duration and distance covered, together with specific starting and end points and the pattern of two days and nights, provide the parameters for the viewer’s imaginative interpretation. Water, invisibly marking the route taken by the artist, is the additional element connecting the starting and end points of the journey constituted by the bridges over the two rivers.
Long’s first text-only work was made for the seminal exhibition of Conceptual art curated by Harald Szeemann at the Bern Kunsthalle in Switzerland in 1969 called When Attitudes Become Form: Live in Your Head. A Walking Tour in the Berneroberland 1969 (whereabouts unknown) was a poster bearing simply the title, the artist’s name, and the dates of a ten day period during which the ‘action’ took place, thus describing the primary focus of all Long’s subsequent work. He has used maps, drawn lines and photographs to articulate processes of measuring time and space in various ways. In parallel, Long has used such basic natural materials as rock, stones, pebbles, branches, twigs, bones, snow and water to create lines, circles and other simple geometric forms in photographic and sculptural work. 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. In Long’s practice water appears in many forms: as rivers to measure and replicate in The Crossing Place of Road and River. A Walk of the Same Length as the River Avon: An 84 Mile Northward Along the Fosse Way Roman Road 1977 (Tate T06470), as a means of tracing lines in such works as Waterlines 1989 (see Tate P11266) and Waterlines 2003 (Tate T11984) and mixed with earth to make mud with which to make paintings on paper, in Untitled 1991 (Tate T06555), and to make paintings directly on the wall in Waterfall Line 2000 (Tate T11970).
Richard Long, exhibition catalogue, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome 1994
Richard Long: Walking the Line, London 2002, reproduced p.295 in colour
R.H. Fuchs, Richard Long, London 1986