A Site of Many Journeys

A road is the site of many journeys.
The place of a walk is there before the walk and after it.
- Richard Long, 1980

It is not entirely clear how the Roman surveyors planned straight roads over long distances, traversing hills and linking distant cities. Their lands observations were made with a groma which, with its four hanging plumb lines, might be taken for an ancient percussion instrument. Once a direction was set, it would have been relatively simple to lay out a straight path: line up three points and then move ahead, repeating the process. The first, middle and last measuring poles continually change places, like a configuration of sounds, looped and repeated over and over again until it is time to stop. There is something similar in the way walking artist Richard Long picks up driftwood or stones and moves them from one place to the next, creating a sculpture in motion rather than a standing form. Some objects recur, others appear only once: feather to pebble, pebble to crow, crow to crab, crab to pebble… There are no climactic moments on these solo walks, just a steady progression through a passing landscape hinted at in the most minimal of language.

Roman roads were not confined to a straight course all the time. Richard Long has not always made his walks in straight lines. Straight Miles and Meandering Miles was a 294 mile walk which, as a text piece lists the nine straight miles on his route, one of which took him along the Foss Way, an old Roman road. Drawing a line on a map and walking it, Richard Long imposes limits on how he will experience the landscape. Sounds may come and go but the underlying rhythm will proceed forwards. As the Crow Flies, a twelve hour walk in Scotland, suggests a sense of airborne freedom, but the route was carefully planned in advance so that a continuous walk would be possible. The Romans cut their roads through the wild places of Britain: into the forests and over the high moors. In Italy, to get from Rome to Rimini on the Adriatic Sea they built the Via Flaminia, which crosses the largest of all Roman bridges and tunnels through the Apennines. Nowadays it is a country road, a gentle alternative to the noise and speed of the modern autostrada.

Roads like the Aurelian Way were composed in layers: a base of rubble, strata of gravel and a surface of cobbles or paving stones. Richard Long has built stone lines out in the landscape and across the floors of galleries. Sometimes he uses more fragile material such as willow sticks and river mud. Impermanence is fundamental to how he thinks about his art. A walk resembles a musical performance in that it can be described but not re-lived. The Roman roads themselves are often nothing but memories and traces. Before the Kingsland Road there was Ermine Street, Earninga Straete, and before that a Roman road whose Latin name is now lost. The original roads laid out by the Roman surveyors were never intended to be permanent anyway. Each time they were repaired, milestones were replaced with new ones that commemorated the current emperor. A road, like a piece of music, is not a fixed entity. It exists as a possibility, there before the walk and after it.

Andrew Ray 2012