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Hardly a week passes without my email inbox pinging with news of another art prize. Ostensibly, they serve to give an artist a boost. The recognition cheers the spirit; while the gift — sometimes of time in the form of an all-expenses paid residency, sometimes of money, sometimes both — can prove an invaluable aid to production.
Such beneficence is particularly helpful to emerging artists who have not yet conquered the heights of their métier. There are, however, a small number of prizes for artists who have already reached their peak. One is the Golden Lion lifetime achievement award presented at the Venice Biennale: in 2013 it went to Austrian painter Maria Lassnig and Marisa Merz, a member of Italy’s Arte Povera movement.
The Whitechapel Gallery Art Icon seems to be part of this nucleus: it is not for young pretenders. Its inaugural edition, held last year, was won by the high mandarin of British abstractionists Howard Hodgkin. This year, the winner is an equally illustrious titan, the land artist Richard Long.
Yet according to the gallery’s director Iwona Blazwick, the Icon prize is “not a lifetime achievement award”. Instead, she says, it is about saying, “this work merits attention right now”.
Long fits this criterion perfectly. Now in his 70th year, the Bristol-born artist is beautifully captured by words from one of his own poems as a “location hunter/gentle plotter/mapping master” for a body of work that encompasses land art, performance, text and photography. His journey began, quite literally, in 1967 when he took a short walk in the English countryside and then photographed the track left by his footprints and entitled the image “A Line Made by Walking”.
Nearly 40 years later, he has walked the world. Remote parts of Japan, the Himalayas, Antarctica, Canada and Bolivia are some of the landscapes that have hosted Long as he makes his epic treks before marking his trail with a sculptural creation, perhaps a circle, line or spiral in stone, slate or driftwood. Back in the urban jungle, he evokes these distant monuments with lush, imagistic poems and cool documentary photographs. When he makes site-specific works in natural materials in galleries and museums, they resonate because his viewers are aware of their invisible peers in the wilderness.
Arguably Britain’s most important living sculptor (since the death of Anthony Caro last year), Long is no stranger to accolades. He represented Britain in the Venice Biennale in 1976 and was nominated three times for the Turner Prize before winning in 1989.
For Blazwick, Long is exciting “on so many levels”. He was at the forefront of installation art, performance art — “his work was simply made by walking” — and immersive art. Part of a pioneering generation of land artists such as Hamish Fulton and Walter de Maria, Long’s influence on younger artists is second to none. “He inaugurated a whole succession of works that finds its ultimate [realisation] in Olafur Eliasson’s Turbine Hall,” Blazwick enthuses, referring to the remarkable solar theatre unveiled by the Scandinavian artist within Tate Modern’s vast hall in 2004.
Long’s work has taken on new relevance in an age where concern for the environment has become acute. “There’s a tremendous awareness now about the fragility of the wilderness — these places that were once known as the wastelands or badlands,” says Blazwick. “Long is documenting something that could disappear. [It gives his work] this feeling of urgency.”
The politics of awards are potentially troublesome. This year the Turner Prize jury, for example, came under fire for its failure to look much beyond the alumni of the Glasgow School of Art for its shortlist. Blazwick believes her jury is heterogenous enough to avoid charges of bias. Alongside her, it comprised Art Fund director Stephen Deuchar; Ann Gallagher, head of collections for British art at Tate; and Jackie Wullschlager, chief art critic for the Financial Times.
“I come from the contemporary perspective: ‘What are kids looking at now?’ ‘What are students looking at?’,” says Blazwick. “Ann Gallagher has her finger on the pulse of what is happening globally. Stephen has this sense of what resonates publicly. He also has a wide historical stage, from Titian onwards, in which to place an artist. Jackie, as a critic, has more dispassionate views.”
As there is no official shortlist, the jury is not obliged to reveal who else was being considered. Deuchar recalls an “in-depth, sustained conversation” about four artists. “We were surrounded by catalogues!” Blazwick remembers “passionate debates. A lot of names were pulled about and discussed.” She says that a connection to the Whitechapel Gallery is not essential but admits “we are a little biased”. Deuchar says Long’s “strong Whitechapel connection” definitely made a difference.
Long’s first major British retrospective took place in the east London space. Consisting of a single cross made of pine cones on one floor, and a spiral of chalky footprints on the upper storey, the exhibition was, in Blazwick’s words, “a radical proposition back then”. In 1977, he was the subject of a second Whitechapel exhibition The North Woods, when the gallery was run by Nicholas Serota.
What is certain is that prizes benefit institutions as much as artists. As Blazwick puts it: “For institutions they’re a pause in the rhythm of programming to step back and take a retrospective view.”
Awards are also a powerful mechanism for raising an institution’s profile — and its balance sheet. Art Icon is sponsored by the Swarovski Foundation, and will be presented at a gala dinner whose ticket sales will go towards the gallery’s education programme. For Swarovski, which already sponsors a curator at the gallery, its philanthropic reputation will enjoy a fillip. In such cash-strapped times, it’s probable that while not all artists shall win, more and more institutions will have prizes.
Richard Long’s ‘Time and Space’ is at the Arnolfini, Bristol, July 31 to November 15. arnolfini.org.uk
Photographs: Richard Long/ Lisson Gallery; Howard Sooley