A Night of Rain Sleeping Place An 8 Day Mountain Walk in Sobaeksan Korea Spring 1993 by Richard Long, 1993 Courtesy Kunstverein Hannover Â©Â the artis
Thereâ€™s a good article by Robert MacFarlane on Richard Long on Tate Etc, the Tateâ€™s magazine, that attempts to see beyond the usual assumptions people make about Longâ€™s work as â€œromanticâ€ :
â€œI feel I carry my childhood with me in lots of aspects of my work,â€ [Long]remarked. â€œWhy stop skimming stones when you grow up?â€
Why indeed? Itâ€™s a lovely question â€“ innocently seen and innocently phrased. And Long has never stopped skimming stones, artistically speaking. His hundreds of circles â€“ made around the world in stone, sand, wood, grass and footprints â€“ can be imagined as the ripples of these skimmed stones. To my mind, his work is best understood as a set of persistently childish acts: the outcomes of a brilliantly unadulterated being-in-the-world. The word kindergarten was coined in 1840 by the German educationalist Friedrich Froebel (1782â€“1852). Kindergarten, literally â€œa childrenâ€™s gardenâ€: a school or space for early learning. Froebel (less remembered now than Maria Montessori or Rudolf Steiner, for he didnâ€™t lend his name to his method) wanted to create an environment in which children could be childish in the best sense of that word. Banished from his kindergartens was the Gradgrindian sense of the infant as a vessel to be filled with facts. Instead, he fostered an ideal of the child as micronaut â€“ an explorer of the worldâ€™s textures, laws and frontiers, who should be left to make his or her own discoveries through unstructured play. Froebel wanted children to â€œreach out and take the world by the hand, and palpate its natural materials and lawsâ€, as Marina Warner observes in a fine essay on play, â€œto discover gravity and grace, pliancy and rigidity, to sense harmonies and experience limitsâ€.
A nature-lover and walker from an early age, Froebel had a passion for the patterns of phenomena, and in particular for what he called â€œthe deeper lying unity of natural objectsâ€. It was for this reason that the early Froebelian kindergartens had few figurative toys. Instead of trains, dolls and knights, there were wooden cubes and spheres, coloured squares and circles, pebbles, shells and pick-up-sticks. Children spent their days singing songs and playing games, arranging the pebbles in spirals and circles, balancing blocks and picking up sticks. This open play was, as Froebel imagined it, the means by which â€œthe child became aware of itself, and its place within the universeâ€.
Long is a childish artist in the Froebelian sense, and the wild world is his kindergarten. When Clarrie Wallis, curator of the new Tate exhibition, observes that his work is about his â€œown physical engagement, exploring the order of the universe and natureâ€™s elemental forcesâ€¦ about measuring the world against ourselvesâ€, she could be describing the Froebelian method. For more than 40 years Long has been using his moving body to explore limits, sense harmonies and apprehend balance and scale. His materials and his vocabulary have always been uncomplicated and childish. â€œI am content with the vocabulary of universal and common means,â€ he wrote quietly in 1982, â€œwalking, placing, stones, sticks, water, circles, lines, days, nights, roads.â€ Again in 1985: â€œMy pleasure is in walking, lifting, placing, carrying, throwing, marking.â€ In 1968 he showed a sculpture of sticks cut from trees along the Avon and laid end to end in lines on the gallery floor. Five, six, pick up sticks. Seven, eight, lay them straight.
It is the play of â€œthe solemn childâ€, as MacFarlane says. Read the whole article on Tate Etcâ€™s website.