The director of the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester’s university quarter shows me an A4 piece of paper with Richard Long’s handwritten instructions, in neat if faint block capitals. Also neat if faint are his rules for the construction of White Onyx Line (1990): mark out a large chalk oblong on the floor; place the larger of the irregular, flattish hunks of pale stone at regular intervals (but not too regular); then add the smaller stones along the length.
What results is seemingly (indeed partly) random and carefree, but also intensely designed, natural and unnatural, a unique instantiation of this work relying on the curator and technician’s discretion, with a harmonious movement along the sculpture – if you can say that of stock-still stones.
The show at the Whitworth has two of Long’s stone sculptures and two word sculptures, a small but well-chosen selection which fits with the landscape emphasis – Turner watercolours, a current John Piper show – of the gallery. These stone pieces for inside feel like comfortable counterparts of his interventions in the landscape – the Land Art which made him famous, where the landscape becomes not just the setting for art but part of the process of art and part of the artwork itself. This is because they employ the same mode of nature altered; the intrusion of man into nature is substituted, however, for that of nature into man.
That’s part of what makes these stone works (the other is Tideless Stones (2008), concentric archways of limestone, pictured below) so compelling: whenever you think their implications flow one way, they reverse themselves.
Pictured above: Richard Long, Tideless Stones (2008); courtesy of the artist
There is also a physical quality to the artwork beyond the stones themselves. In pacing along the sculpture, you are recreating Long’s journey through the countryside, which is key to understanding the logic and the nature of his work. It’s also a very subtle way of bringing a further dimension of outside inside.
His word sculptures – vinyl letters o nthe gallery walls – involve a similar degree of autonomy and control on the part of the gallery. Long told the Whitworth that the letters of A Day’s Walk Across Dartmoor Following the Drift of the Clouds (which is both the title and the words spelled out) had to be ‘the blue of the sky’.
You could see such challenges as confrontational, but they seem generous and inclusive instead. This is reinforced by Long’s declaration that the artwork is not in fact the artwork until it is made: the curator is a vital part of the art, changing it with each installation.
The actual content of the artwork is another re-imagining of the outside inside: we summon external realities with words all the time (such as this review, for example) so the vinyl letters are just as much a portrait and instance of nature as the stones. And if you feel the need to get back to actual nature, there’s always the park behind the Whitworth.
PS: I should mention, as they very kindly put me up, that while in Manchester I stayed at the DoubleTree, Hilton Hotels’ boutique branch. Rooms at DoubleTree by Hilton Manchester – Piccadilly start from £99 per room, per night. For reservations, visit doubletree.com or call 0870 590 9090.
Richard Long: Land Art runs until 16 June at the Whitworth Art Gallery