To create his art, Richard Long walks for days, even weeks at a time, traversing great distances through uncultivated areas of land. The countryside of England, Ireland, and Scotland; the mountains of Nepal and Japan; and the plains of Africa, Mexico, and Bolivia are among the diverse areas through which he has traveled. He documents these journeys with captioned large-scale photographs, maps, and lists of descriptive terms, which are exhibited as individual works. While walking, Long sets specific tasks for himself, such as continuing along an absolutely straight line for a predetermined distance, following a river wherever it may lead, or picking up and then dropping stones at certain intervals along the way. He also interacts with the landscape as he travels by creating modest sculptures from indigenous materials, thus attesting to his presence in the land. These circles or lines rubbed into the ground by repeated footprints or composed of assembled stones, driftwood, or seaweed are eventually dissolved by the wind, rain, and rising tides, thus negating human dominance over nature. Photographs of these organic sculptures remain the only evidence of their existence after erosion has run its course.
Subsequent to these walks, Long translates his deeply personal experiences in the wilderness into sculptures and mud drawings created for exhibition spaces and private collections. Pieces composed of flint, slate, feathers, pine needles, sticks, and other rustic materials become metaphors for the paths taken on his ramblings: the spirals, circles, and lines (Long's signature motifs), if extended beyond the gallery walls, would trace actual distances traveled by the artist. The sculptures are not, therefore, representations of nature per se, but rather aesthetic documents of Long's engagement with the land and poetic evocations of the beauty and grandeur of the earth.
Bilbao Circle, originally created for the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in 2000, uses slate stones quarried in historic Delabole, a village in Cornwall that boasts the oldest working slate quarry in England. By walking around the sculpture, viewers reenact in part the artist's own perambulations. When viewed from above, the work is reminiscent of the mysterious crop circles or prehistoric rock formations, such as Stonehenge, that hint at interventions from some other world. The artist has created pieces related to specific ancient sites in England, including the Cerne Abbas Giant, the Long Man of Wilmington, and Silbury Hill, but all of Long's works evoke a time characterized by a more spiritual relationship to the land.