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In the mud with Richard Long

In the mud with Richard Long

The land artist who uses mud from the River Avon

The land artist who uses mud from the River Avon

Robert Butler | Autumn 2008

One of Britain's most internationally acclaimed artists, a Turner prizewinner and Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, heads off at a brisk pace down a path by the River Avon in his shirt, knee-length shorts and sandals. It's raining. Aged 63, he is a lean, tanned figure, whose most striking feature is the flourish of his curlicue eyebrows.

This is not a walk by Richard Long's standards. Ten years ago he did a 1,030-mile walk from the southernmost point of mainland Britain to the northernmost. He has walked from Aldeburgh to Aberystwyth and back (taking one stone from each beach and leaving it at the other). He has done a 21-day walk in Nepal and a 14-day walk across Iceland. He has walked days and nights without sleeping.

Today his only prop is a green floppy Gore-Tex hat. As he passes the joggers and cyclists, his hat, shorts and long purposeful stride give him a boyish, faintly colonial, air. We're barely going a mile, from the art gallery, Spike Island, where his next work will be exhibited, to just beyond a warehouse in the distance, where there is something he would like to show me.

Spike Island is the piece of land that separates Bristol Harbour from the tidal River Avon. We follow an old railway track, brushing alliteratively past brambles, buddleia and blackberry bushes, graffiti-covered walls ("Lewis the baron") and an imposing brick warehouse. We duck into a narrow, puddle-strewn path under a concrete bridge, turn the corner, and there it is: a spectacular view of the Avon Gorge and Clifton Suspension Bridge.

Half of Richard Long's life can be seen from this spot. He points to the bank on the far side where the photo that advertised his first exhibition was taken: a boy on a bicycle with the bridge in the distance. Farther downstream are the places where he still collects driftwood. He gestures in a private sort of way over and beyond Clifton to where he was born. As a boy, he played on the Downs, along the towpaths and in the limestone caves of the gorge. Immediately to our right is the old lock bridge which he would cycle over to school. "Down one hill," he says, "up another." He used to watch the white paddle steamers turning around just in front of us. He doesn't like to be nostalgic, but it would be hard not to feel a twinge. His grandparents lived here, his parents lived here, and his 93-year old mother, whom he is going on to see later this afternoon, still lives here. So, of course, does he. Small wonder he believes every artist is first and foremost a local artist.

A major inspiration for his work, the raw material for much of his art, lies immediately below, around and in front of us. "As you know, tidal mud is made by the gravitational pull of the moon over millions of years," he said earlier in the day. "The River Avon tidal mud is unbelievably strong and viscous. It has all the natural binding qualities, like cave paintings." He has used mud from other places, Hudson River mud, Rhone Valley mud and Braga mud from northern Portugal, but this is "my favourite mud because it's my local mud. It's a great colour." Even its molecular structure is quite different from the mud you get in a country field. He loves its "squidginess".

He has used mud in small delicate pieces, like the fingerprints on driftwood sticks, or in large pieces where he places careful imprints of his hands that spool out in a large spiral, or in vast dripping pieces such as one wall of the Hearst Tower in New York. Or he has simply put the mud in buckets and thrown it at the wall. The tension in each case lies in the deliberateness of his actions and the infinitely varied patterns that the mud forms.

"What I like", he says, "is that you have the infinitesimal little splashes and drips and crosshairs of the microscale, and there's the big powerful image you can see when you stand back. As well as being about mud, it's also about water and gravity, the way water falls down. So, in one respect, the mud just gives it colour. The mud makes the image of the water effects." Does he stand back to view it as he's doing it? "I don't really. I'm up on a scissor lift, so I don't stand back."

He collects the mud farther downstream from where we're standing, sometimes putting it in a bag on the back of his bicycle. He takes this mud all over the world. As we speak, he has exhibitions on in Berlin and Nice. (There is a list of his solo and group exhibitions round the world at the back of his 2002 book "Walking the Line". It fills 21 columns of print.) He used to take the mud with him onto the plane but he was stopped by airport security once when he was flying to Northern Ireland and the mud was mistaken for Semtex. They stuck a pencil into the middle and gave him the all clear. Since more and more of his mud pieces are large scale, he sends the mud separately.

The River Avon has the second highest differential between high tide and low tide in the world. (The highest is the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia.) As a boy, Long found this compelling. "We had a river and every six hours it had no water in it." His father was an inner-city primary-school teacher and each year he would take the children on a day's expedition from the Suspension Bridge down the river. He would also take his son to see the spring tides. When he was nine or ten, Richard made a plaster-of- Paris model of a river with mud banks, creeks and little inlets.

We're now standing next to the concrete flyover. After leaving school, he says, he got a job helping to build it. It's hard to miss the irony: two years after the flyover job he made a drawing, "Snowball Track", by rolling a snowball across the snow-covered grass on Bristol Downs. It was the start of an extraordinary career that took the artist out of the studio and into the natural world. Since then, impermanence has been a key element of his work. Many of Long's pieces--a brushed path in Nepal, a line of kicked stones in Bolivia, a circle of stones in the Gobi desert--are either ephemeral or impossible to find. In some of his work, evanescence is intrinsic to the idea: a cross made in a field of daisies, for instance, will disappear when the daisies grow back. In other cases, the work may remain there indefinitely.

As we head under the permanent-looking flyover and cut across a municipal car park, he says he has been drawing since he was two or three: "I was always the school artist." When an exhibition of his work was held at the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol, in 2000, his mother produced some landscapes he'd done as a child. We reach the towpath again as he tells me his first work was a story that he produced with illustrations and made into a book. Many of his pieces can now be found only in books.

One side of the car park, there's a model eco-home with compost bins, water butts and a rusty iron sign with six-foot-high cut-out letters saying "Recycle". It goes unnoticed as we're talking about Van Gogh, "an early hero". Long has never been fully co-opted by greens. "I never started out with those kinds of philosophical questions about green politics," he told me. "That was never part of the work. It was really just to celebrate the landscape, celebrate nature, to go to the places that gave pleasure to me. I like walking, I like camping, I love big open spaces, I like Dartmoor, I like Bolivia, I like the deserts, so it was to utilise and engage with all those fantastic possibilities that the planet offers. That's what my work has been about. Not necessarily about conservation, or green politics, or environmentalism. But it's a different world now. I am more aware of it." And how has that manifested itself? "The work was politically correct from the beginning so I haven't had to change my practice at all. The only thing I do, increasingly, is if I make a big sculpture like ‘Standing Stones' in a place, I put the stones down after I've taken the photograph."

As we turn back towards Spike Island, he becomes more personal and animated. The first part of our conversation, which I'd taped at the gallery, had its halting and circumspect moments. It wasn't clear during some of the pauses if the interview had come to an end or another thought was on its way. Long dislikes publicity. In the early stages of his career he believed that the work would speak for itself. At a New York symposium in 1969 for the exhibition Earth Art, he shared a platform with other artists, who gave lengthy accounts of their work. When it came to his turn, all he said was, "My work will be in front of the museum." He only started giving interviews and writing texts to accompany exhibitions to counteract some misapprehensions about his work. Once the distinguished art critic David Sylvester wrote an essay for a catalogue of Long's work. Long insisted the essay be withdrawn because it had missed the point.

He had left his Bristol art college, where he was misunderstood, to go to St Martin's (where Gilbert and George were contemporaries), but even there his tutors were "patronising", not knowing what to do with him, and even suggesting he get a job with the Forestry Commission. Still, it must have been hard to see where he was going. His first well-known piece, "A Line Made by Walking" (1967), involved walking up and down a straight line on the grass in a London park till he had left a mark. Then he took a photograph. It challenged the whole idea of what a sculpture might be.

The walk has turned into a good talk. Wasn't this part of an argument, I ask, that he was having with the art world? No, he says, he wasn't demonstrating any theory. Even with that early work, he was sure about what he was doing, he just didn't know anybody else who was doing anything like it. He had to go abroad to find his peer group. In 1968 he came back from an exhibition in Dusseldorf, where works by Joseph Beuys and Carl Andre were also shown, with £250 in his pocket. There was a market for what he did. It gave him the freedom to travel.

His work divides between exhibitions and expeditions: few other artists have balanced their activities quite so equally between their hands and their feet. Next year he has a big exhibition at the Tate. It can't be a retrospective, he explains, because so much of his work is unavailable for retrospection. Too much of this career stuff, preparing catalogues for exhibitions, and so on, and he gets "cabin fever" and heads off. When we meet, he has just got back from walking in Norway, soon he will be off to walk in France. On these lengthy journeys, does he experience a heightened intensity? "A heightened relaxation." Does he get the same heightened relaxation when he's making a sculpture as he does when he's walking? Not exactly. "When you're walking," he says, "you can stumble. It doesn't matter."

His trips are not about ticking off every country in the world. For a start, countries with dense thick vegetation would be inimical to his approach--where the lightest of touches is applied to an existing landscape. But he's never been to the Antarctic, or Vietnam, or Thailand. As we approach the gallery, he quotes a Dutch artist friend who said that young artists often do their work unselfconsciously, and those early pieces carry the seed of what could turn out to be a life's work. As his work developed, I suggest, and he repeated aspects of it in widely different circumstances, the public must have got a better understanding of it. "And I did too," he replies.

In the Spike Island café he has fish pie and a Coca-Cola. He did his first Avon piece 39 years ago. "I made a rainbow with powder colours on the mud bank when the tide was out." This time, "I'm using the Avon as material. The Avon provides the mud." The mud works, he says, "have got bigger in scale, they've got more confident, they've changed in many ways over the years." He will be doing two large new mud works here.

After the exhibition, will he be around to wipe the mud off the walls? "No," he says, "I couldn't bring myself to do that. In an ideal world, it would be great if more of the mud works stayed. The tidal mud is really strong. It's like the Lascaux caves. It could last for thousands of years." 

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