The duchess and I own 2/20,000ths of a Richard Long artwork. The tiny segments are part of the piece that Bill Drummond has been selling off as part of his own ongoing performance artwork. For what it’s worth, our segments were some of the first to be purchased back in 2001 when Drummond came to Exeter. As expected he was as witty, engaging and intellectually stimulating as you might expect someone who had burnt a million quid to be. And you may interpret that last sentence according to your whim.
In my head therefore Drummond and Long are inextricably linked, and in my head this is not a problem for we need pointers to lead us to places of interest. So whilst I was aware of Richard Long’s work long before Drummond made his connections, it was only really when I read the former KLF member’s terrific ‘How To Be An Artist’ that things clicked. What clicked? Well I think it was the notion that you could be this and you could be that all at once. The one may contradict the other but that is okay. Indeed, the contradictions are a part of the appeal. So Richard Long (and Bill Drummond to a degree) might in one light be seen as unconscionable hippies in thrall to the pull of nature and yet in another can also be seen as sublimely minimalist, modernist even. Perhaps even revolutionary in their own quiet ways.
What I like about Richard Long’s work though isn’t so much what it is, or what it’s about, but rather the questions it asks us. Where his work is recorded in photography those questions are very much tied up in the value of the image: To what extent is the photograph the work? Does the success of the work depend upon the skill of the photographer? What impact does the choice of the photograph have? How valuable is a moment captured when the work is about time and experience that belongs entirely to the artist? Drummond himself seeks to address some of those questions by slicing up and selling off his £20,000 photograph of ‘The Smell of Sulphur in the Wind’. Did he buy a photograph or did he buy something much more exclusive and elusive? Invisible and non-existent, even. What a scam. Nice work if you can get it.
With his text work (of which ‘Halfway Stone’ is one) the questions are similar: To what extent is the text the work? Does the success of the work depend upon the skill of the writer and of the typographer? How valuable is a moment captured when the work is about time and experience that belongs entirely to the artist? In the case of ‘Halfway Stone’, what is the significance of the halfway point on a walk of 622 miles? Is all that came before simply preparation for the moment? Is all that came after an anti-climax or an irrelevance? This is the punctuation point, but what of the void? 622 miles is a long way. Is that, then, what we value and appreciate about the work? Walking 622 miles in 21 days is hard work, after all. It’s no stroll in the park, but then again Long obviously loves walking. He’s doing what he wants to do, and ultimately that is what I like most about his work: It is unapologetically about the artist himself and his own relationship with the world. Yes, the viewer may be encouraged or inspired to find their own relationships and create their own interventions with the world, but these particular moments actually belong to no-one but the artist himself. There is something beautifully selfish in that act, and artists should be selfish above all else after all.
There have always been some ridiculous demarcation lines drawn between musical genres but none were more ridiculous than the notion of ‘Dance’ music being a genre in and of itself. You can dance to anything, after all. Even architecture. Especially architecture. Yet ‘Dance’ was, particularly for a period at the end of the ‘8os and into the ‘90s, a genre distinctly defined by media and consumer alike. It became something of a battleground, especially for those of a certain persuasion. Such people claimed that every band previously seen (or heard) wielding guitars were sell-outs or traitors for adding a funky drummer breakbeat to their records. Some groups countered with “there was always a Dance element to our sound”. It would have been funny if people hadn’t been so earnest. Actually, perhaps that is exactly why it was so funny. And I suspect I may have been something of a comedian in my time...
Many of the artists who trod the shady line that some pronounced as being ‘indie- dance’ had ludicrously (and mercifully) short life-spans. Others assuredly deserved better (step forward World Of Twist, Paris Angels and Intastella). In hindsight it seems impossible to contemplate that Saint Etienne would not become the group who went go on to produce innumerable albums of astonishing accomplishment yet at the time of their second single there was no certainty that the party would last much further into the future. Perhaps this was part of the appeal. It could all fall apart tomorrow so enjoy it whilst it lasts.
In hindsight too it feels so right that their first two singles should have been cover versions from such apparently opposite ends of the Pop spectrum. Neil Young and The Field Mice? How does THAT happen? At the time it felt simultaneously both strange and gloriously apt. Looking back from 2016 it almost feels like an inevitability. In those post-modern daze of wonder and abandonment to the heady melting pot of Pop how could it possibly have been any different?
And yet Saint Etienne did seem strange at the time. We could see the signposts but couldn’t see the roads. Or maybe where Pop was going it didn’t need roads…. Saint Etienne then seemed to be a group that embraced, indeed celebrated the very manufactured essence of Pop; a group who implicitly understood the artifice inherent in notions of authenticity and yet seemed so very real in their shimmering elusiveness. It’s a hard act to pull off, with the implicit point that if you can see the hand move then the magic is lost. And Saint Etienne have always believed in magic.
‘Kiss And Make Up’, then, as remodelled by Saint Etienne retains something of the resignedness of the Field Mice original but smothers it in salacious smooches such that the ennui registers only as a nagging undercurrent. It is a spacious and dubby record and with it’s Italo House piano slowed to an almost funereal pace it could come over with an Indie-boy earnestness if it wasn’t so dashed skinny hipped and seductive. The record shimmies from the bedroom to the dancehall and back to the bedroom, but it’s certainly not going home on it’s own. It’s not crying and it most assuredly doesn’t want to die. In the end then this is its greatest quality: it is this and it is that all at once. Its contradictions are essential ingredients of its whole. Revolutionary, in its own quiet way.