A Cloudless Walk
by Randall Couch
Since he first came to public notice with works like “A Line Made by Walking” (1967), British artist Richard Long’s practice has often been characterized as “conceptual.” Coming of age in the era of the “dematerialization of the art object,”1 he was one of many influenced by John Cage, and he showed with self-described conceptual artists like Lawrence Weiner—but he also exhibited in important group shows of earth art, post-minimalism, process art, and arte povera. His work has remained both remarkably consistent and remarkably relevant over more than four decades, while conceptual art in the strict sense can now be seen as a movement pervasively influential, but of its time.
Long has said of his practice, “My work is real, not illusionary or conceptual. It is about real stones, real time, real actions.”2 His intent is not to depict the landscape, but to make of it, and his interaction with it, the work itself. This desire for unmediated experience of the land anticipates and resonates with contemporary concerns: anti-commercialism, DIY, eco-aesthetics, Buddhist presentness. It is an art of direct engagement.
Long’s art has always taken two forms. In the first and best known, he goes to a specific place to make a personal intervention in the landscape (usually realized according to a predetermined program or constraint, which sometimes but not always involves chance operations). The intervention is documented, typically by photograph or text description, for presentation to the audience. In the second mode, rather than bringing the viewer to the (represented) site, Long brings materials from the natural site and arranges them in a gallery or other viewing space, again usually according to a programmatic idea.
Unlike those conceptual artists who asserted, with Weiner, that the quality of the concept so completely determined the quality of the art work that it didn’t matter whether it was ever given physical form, Long recognizes the integral role that his photographs and text works play in the viewer’s experience of the “events and sculptures—walks—that I have made,”3 and they are carefully constructed.
In his 2009 retrospective at the Tate Britain, Long displayed a large version of the text work “A Cloudless Walk” (reproduced above) on an end wall of one gallery. Given the size and scope of the show, it was notable how many people congregated, rapt, before that piece, and how often it figured in the conversational buzz in the lobby.
What’s so compelling about two-plus lines of uninflected description that fall short of a complete sentence? Can they be said to partake of a poetics? In a moment when “conceptual poetries” of various stripes are being put forward, the second question is topical. For Voltage Poetry, we might ask whether these spare lines incorporate any recognizable tropes—and if so, how they could function in a text work recording the artist’s programmatic engagement with a place.
Long’s title offers little help. “Cloudless,” applied to a sky or a journey, yields a mere cliché denoting clear weather and connoting untroubled progress. Such a title functions qualitatively to set a tone that calibrates a reader’s expectations. Someone familiar with Long’s walks might recognize in the title a rule or constraint—the concept—governing the work, but the phrase is too general to reveal or undermine much of what follows.
The first line introduces data. It immediately presents the reader with a completed event: an exact distance covered in a certain time. With the direction of movement already given, the second line supplies the journey’s point of origin. Everything about this beginning speaks of the known—something fixed, contained, determined.
The terms here also develop an expectation of precision: 121 miles isn’t rounded to 120. A compass bearing and a point of origin define a path like a geometric ray, while “to the first” leads us to expect a fixed terminus to the line. This is the language of math, measurement, and mapping, and at this point the text itself is nearly complete.
But the word “cloud,” as the object of “to the first,” changes everything. The reader’s expectation of fixed closure is destabilized by the ethereal, dynamic, and seemingly random nature of actual clouds. The apparently predetermined scope of the walk is revealed to have been partly indeterminate, bounded by the capricious shape and movement of vapor.
The same word also juxtaposes and contrasts those mechanical constructs, our technologies of measuring time and distance, with the fluid and natural system of weather. From the human scale of a man walking on the ground, visualized as a linear path over a topographical surface, the reader’s field of awareness suddenly enlarges vertically to include the sky: the effect is vertiginous. Note that Long doesn’t say “to the shadow of the first / cloud,” so the effect is also deliberate.
The impact of all these shifts accrues because they are triggered at the same point in the text—when we see that the journey’s end is not a fixed landmark, but a cloud. After the synaptic gap of the line break, our vicarious experience of Long’s walk is transformed as we confront what Keats or Hopkins would have called the heavens.
If the reader experiences a feeling of being “swept up” at the end of the text—a fleeting bit of wonder, a momentary sense of the smallness of individual human activity in comparison to meteorological or planetary events—Long has, in spite of himself, evoked the Romantic sublime. In part the credit goes to his concept for the walk; but the reader’s reception is equally conditioned by Long’s rhetoric in the construction of the textual turn. This can easily be shown by rearranging the sequence in which information is released: “A walk to the first cloud, eastward from the mouth of the Loire for 121 miles in 3½ days.” No surprise here, and any elevation we might feel at the opening phrase is brought thoroughly down to earth by the remainder of the text.
It’s to Long’s credit that he touches this elevated register so lightly, using austere and unsentimental means. Still, such points of continuity with aesthetic history, as with the idea of landscape itself, play a part—perhaps underappreciated—in the continuing influence and appeal of his work.
1Lucy R. Lippard and John Chandler, “The Dematerialization of Art,” Art International, vol. XII, no. 2, February 1968, p. 32.
2Richard Long, Five, six, pick up sticks, Seven, eight, lay them straight, London 1982. Reprinted in Ben Tufnell (ed.), Richard Long Selected Statements and Interviews, London: Haunch of Venison, 2007, p. 16.
3Letter from Richard Long to Clarrie Wallis, September 1, 2008. Quoted in Clarrie Wallis, “Making Tracks,” in Richard Long: Heaven and Earth, London: Tate Publishing, 2009, p. 47.
Randall Couch edited and translated Madwomen: The Locas mujeres Poems of Gabriela Mistral (University of Chicago Press, 2008), which won the biennial Popescu Prize for Poetry Translation (Poetry Society, UK) and was one of two finalists for the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. A frequent panelist on the podcast series PoemTalk sponsored by the Poetry Foundation, PennSound, and Kelly Writers House, he has published essays and book chapters on Susan Stewart, Ezra Pound, Gabriela Mistral, Harryette Mullen, and on ethics and reception in poetry translation. His poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including American Poetry Review, Best New Poets, The Hide-and-Seek Muse, Poetry International, and XConnect. He is an administrator at the University of Pennsylvania and teaches poetry writing and poetics at Arcadia University.