Why do we sometimes walk around what we are trying to say, talking in circles instead of going straight to the point? Usually it is because we are having some difficulty in expressing our ideas, but for Richard Long on his sixty minute walk around Dartmoor, circumlocution is the point. Because the world is a sphere, any apparently straight line we walk along its surface is, in fact, a curve. One of the mysteries of geometry is that the line we perceive as straight may actually be a section of an arc so vast that we cannot read the slowness of the curve; that our senses cannot comprehend the scale of the universe in which we live. Long tries to reorient his senses through extending his bodily experiences of the world by imprinting its shape, all its manifest variations of topography and geology, its surface features along with their associated colours, sounds and temperatures onto his awareness. This he achieves by walking around.
The Dartmoor walk starts with a jump; possibly over some rivulet, definitely out of everyday meandering and into purposeful observation. With that small expenditure of energy, Long is in the landscape. The first thing he sees is shadow, most likely his own as he is now part of this setting as well as its observer.
Walkers also know that orienting themselves to the sun is fundamental for navigation and telling the time; Long has become like the stanchion on a sundial, he needs to see his shadow to know where he is on his journey – the physicality of the landscape can only be interpreted by Long’s own physicality. And thus Long recreates his Dartmoor walk with precise, concrete words that record the sensory information he receives from the landscape; clear, simple words that seem to preclude metaphor. But even precise, objective words can be connotative, can invite poetic imaginings – ‘breathe’, Long stopping to expand his lungs as he strives to take in more of his surroundings; ‘lark’, a clear high note dropping from an empty blue sky, the bird beyond sight.
One word in particular stands out. ‘Clitter’ is not in the Oxford dictionary but, even so, I feel that I know its meaning, can hear the loose stones rattle down a bank as a startled sheep suddenly bolts – Long has provided just enough information to conjure up this image – ‘sheep’, ‘kick’, ‘clitter’, ‘slope’. My knowledge of dialect may be wanting, but I can understand and interpret this strange word, the entire work, as a metaphor or way of conjoining disparate things. Long has embedded the concept of metaphor deep within this work by using typography to connect his words, his description of the landscape, to other objective tools used for the scientific representation of the surface of the earth.
The circle, the sixty words aligned around its perimeter, the description ‘ONE HOUR’, all suggest the clock and the timing of this walk; the marking off of distance by the movement of mechanical hands, as well as Long’s feet. Minutes are also measurements of degree, the marks around the rim of a compass that assist with orientation and enable the walker to get his bearings, to navigate his path forward – ‘jump’ is Long’s North, the true magnetic pole guiding this experience.
Using clock and compass, cartographers can calculate the formulations necessary for the construction of maps; translating distance and terrain into two-dimensional representations. And, with a shift of focus, we can see that this is also a map; that we are looking down on the text, seeing it from a bird’s eye view, just as we do a map. Instead of graphic symbols to mark out the territory and represent the features of the landscape, Long uses words; he signposts them.
Long’s map records his experiences, tracing a circuit through the landscape as a series of sensory encounters, alternative markers that attempt to locate us within the environment in an entirely new way. Whereas cartographers’ maps transcribe the earth’s surface, this map is a maquette – if we follow in Long’s footsteps, then we will physically experience his scupture. His evocative words are also instructions; they must be read to gain orientation, but the entire artwork can only be comprehended and appreciated by using all our senses, by being physically present at the site, by allowing one hour for the viewing, and by walking. Long’s sculpture is in fact this piece of Dartmoor; in marking out the parameters of his walk, he also creates stations along the way, shows us the best way to view it.
In his work, Long makes circles from many things – stones, mud, coal, turf. Each material is an element from a particular environment he has walked through, emblematic of its geology and spirit. Language, he seems to suggest, can be another token of place, another piece of the natural world; we interpret locale through the senses and words. Language is a part of our own physicality. The words he uses here are markings, regular in form and similar in length. While the use of all upper case letters is formal and authoritative, it also ensures that all letters are the same height, that the words can be scanned as blocks of type – read as pattern, rather than for meaning. This is reinforced by their careful geometric arrangement.
Long has chosen to use a modern typeface designed by another sculptor, Eric Gill. Despite its simplicity, Gill sans is not a bland face, has a spriteliness that might appeal to a walker. Each letter is geometrically precise, with rigorously balanced proportions and a spare elegance; each letter is a carefully considered work of art.
These words then are lines of letters, symbols, as well as units of meaning. This is the other metaphor at the heart of the work – language can describe the world, but it can also objectify it, be used as an instrument to empirically reduce it to an apparently comprehensible pattern; language can distance us from corporeality, the very experience it is defining.
Long’s work is about closing distances. In this sixty-minute circle walk on Dartmoor, the image and the words on the page are not like two walkers proceeding side by side in the same direction; they are seamlessly integrated. From this union Long creates a sculptural experience that, if we pay the world the attention he suggests, brings us face to face with reality it all its dimensions : time, space and motion.
Not only is this work a sculptural experience, it is also an occasion for reading; it has a further cycle of interpretation awaiting us. Now that it has been entered on a page, One Hour has another existence, quite independent from the walk itself. Long calls this autonomous object a textwork. Not an artwork; it is formed according to different rules.
Composing a textwork relies on typography, the ancient craft of designing letterforms and carefully arranging them to create harmony while also giving visual meaning to content: ‘Typography is to literature as musical performance is to composition : an essential act of interpretation…’ (The Elements of Typographic Style: 19). The field of typography is the page, an open plateau in the traverse of any book; it is both a space of physical dimensions, and a metaphorical space. If to read is to enter the work, the page is the place where we become enfolded. It is this notion which drives the typographer’s own concern with space, influencing decisions concerning grids and pointsizes and linespacing; the design of the page is part of epistemology.
The text of One Hour is not arranged in columnar form, the trail of words rounding back on itself to become a circle. Both containing and surrounded by emptiness, it signifies more than the walker’s path; it hangs in the page like the earth in space. It reminds us that even as we read this page, we are on a planet, that we are part of its revolutions, that this is the reason we understand what one hour means; it reminds us that our being, like the book, is composed of time.
Underneath the circle sits two straight lines of type : the title One Hour, in red letters; below that A SIXTY MINUTE WALK ON DARTMOOR 1984. The page has a hierarchy of information, is structured to be read a certain way, and because of this structure has a completeness that the circle of words alone lacks. After reading round the list of sixty words, we are brought back to the familiar territory of the page by these two lines.
Unlike the walk, our reading does not necessarily take an hour; the page is able to condense dimensions, experiences, thought. It is the world in miniature, reduced to the size of our hand; comprehensible, under control. It is the world reconfigured both by language and the taxonomy of the page, made into an object of our understanding. Not only can we study it at our leisure, the wilderness has been domesticated. In circle and on page, the expansive external space of the moorlands has been rendered as enclosed, confined, interior; able to be internalized by the reader. Perhaps Long makes these textworks for himself, to internalize his own experiences and preserve them as part of an ongoing project of memorizing place; of storing physical sensations in mental categories. This 1984 work is one of a series of circular Dartmoor walks; others chart natural phenomena such as wind direction and sounds. Like the circle, Long keeps returning to the same place. And so he has compiled a series of textworks, a series of pages, about this particular tract of ground; Dartmoor is simultaneously locale andlocus, or topic heading. Together these pages, and the many others Long has made of his various journeys, can be compiled into a commonplace book of walks.
While Long’s book of knowledge can be seen as an atlas, a collection of maps, it can also be interpreted as a logbook, a regularly maintained register of his performance – for Long’s maps are idiosyncratic, subjective. What he records is his own presence.
Long walks his places into being; they have no existence outside his cognition of them. He does not supplement the data he collects with other references or observations; he is not conducting a geographical study or writing a travelogue. As in a riddle, the only word never used is the answer; although Long never uses the first person pronoun, the work is clearly about his walks, about him. With his textworks, Long has devised a particular way of describing the walks by making the writing also a performance. Because this is what typography is, the choreography of language. The well designed page has what Bringhurst calls a ‘living energy’ (Bringhurst 2001: 17).
Placing his pages on the art museum’s walls, transposing Dartmoor to London or Turin, enables Long to give public performances, to have a social presence despite the solitary nature of his work. It is his method of making an entry in the cultural commonplace book of art, of citing his experiences and works, of constructing a rhetoric of the personal as evidential.
Descartes claimed that because he knew he had thoughts, he knew he existed; Long knows he exists because he walks with his senses wide open, deeplnghyB engaged in the world. He explores genius loci, the spirit of place, transcribing the landscape into typography because this too is a form of sculpture.
When books were handmade manuscripts, each page a unique artwork created by illuminators and scribes, typography was calligraphy; the appearance of letters and words established by the attributes of quill and brush. With the advent of printing, letterforms were determined by different tools, were placed into a separate realm of proficiency.
Before movable type, each page of a book was engraved as a whole, ready for inking and printing; with movable type, the individual letters were carved on separate blocks to be later composed into words and pages. Typography became a form of epigraphy, the stonemason’s art of chiseling inscriptions; Eric Gill is simply one of the many sculptors throughout history who have designed typefaces. Long’s use of words reaffirms language as a convention in the practice of sculpture. This enables the page to become a site for sculptural installation, for the book to enter the art museum. And Long calls his pages textworks, asserting that they belong to the texture of language, to its representation as structure, as detail, as object. Typography, the imbuing of language with a visual form, is not a system of mechanization but of characterization, of rendering mass and space as meaning.
NOTE: Richard Long’s website is: http://www.richardlong.org/
Robert Bringhurst (2001). The Elements of Typographic Style, 2nd ed (Vancouver: Hartley and Marks).