Shifting between order and chaos, the twenty-five stone fragments of Richard Long’s Splintered Marble Circle negotiate the boundary between the geometry of human rationality and the chance arrangements of nature. Shaped over millennia by shearing frosts, drizzling rains, sunrise and twilight, the remnants of ancient rock in Splintered Marble Circle vividly retain Long’s light and deft touch, which has uprooted and abstracted them into a loose circle. Attesting to Long’s presence at a particular time in a particular landscape, the stones are a surviving trace of the fleeting passage of an artist who works alongside the ephemeral forces of nature.
Long’s first exploration into the potential of art to be a short-lived, barely-there intervention was in 1967, while he was still a student at St Martin’s School of Art in London, alongside contemporaries such as Gilbert & George and Barry Flanagan. A Line Made by Walking was created by repeatedly pacing over a straight, narrow segment of a field until the flattened grass glinted in the sun, and the result captured in a black and white photograph, now in the collection of Tate, London. With this work Long established the physical process of walking as a medium for creating art, and began a journey on which he has invisibly etched lines, circles, spirals and squares onto the landscapes of seven continents, measuring them out, step by step, with the endurance of his own body. Space and time become the primary materials he moulds: ‘I like to use the symmetry of patterns between time, places and time, between distance and time, between stones and distance, between time and stones’ (R. Long, ‘Five, six, pick up sticks’ (1980), reprinted in B. Tufnell (ed.), Richard Long, Selected Statements & Interviews, London 2007, p. 15). In his wake, Long leaves marks of his passage: patterns traced onto the sand of the Sahara, a thousand stones at the top of an ancient English cairn, a line of rocks pointing towards a Himalayan peak. Melding the inquisitive, questing principles of Conceptual Art with the essential forms of Minimal Art, Long describes his work ‘as abstract art laid down in the real spaces of the world’ (R. Long, ‘Words After The Fact’ (1982), reprinted in B. Tufnell (ed.), Richard Long, Selected Statements & Interviews, London 2007, p. 17).
Unlike those of Long’s works which can only be comprehended through maps, photographs of transient marks or hauntingly poetic lists of natural phenomena, Splintered Marble Circle retains a satisfying tangibility, allowing the viewer to physically experience the materials which Long encounters on his journeys. Stone, in particular, has a special resonance for the artist: ‘I like common materials, whatever is to hand, but especially stones. I like the idea that stones are what the world is made of’ (R. Long, ‘Five, six, pick up sticks’ (1980), reprinted in B. Tufnell (ed.), Richard Long, Selected Statements & Interviews, London 2007, p. 15). Created in the likeness of nature, from its materials and using its processes, Splintered Marble Circle explores how art, like the landscape, is both eternal and ephemeral.