I always get plenty of books for Christmas–more than I’ll ever have time to read, certainly. So, this year, when I started to tear the paper from the corner of another heavy and flat rectangle, it was hard to get excited. But underneath the paper, I caught a glimpse of a cracked cobblestone. The surface of cobblestone was scratched white, as if the pale scratches were emanating from the crack in the stone. The crack seemed to extend to another scratched cobblestone, gently curving like the beginning of a gentle spiral.
Ooh! Oooh! Oooh! Could it be? I tore the paper, revealing the cover. YES! A book by Andy Goldsworthy! I opened it, and began to flip through the pages of ephemeral artwork, each structure more impressive than the last.
"KARMEN! Stop reading and get back to your gifts. Pass it on!" I’d forgotten it was still Christmas. Reluctantly, I closed the volume and passed it around so everyone else could take a look. Would you believe it; I didn’t get to look at it again until I went home that night. Every time I turned around, I’d see several of my relatives crowded around, peering at Goldsworthy’s lovely photographs. I suppose I can’t blame them–discovering Goldsworthy’s art is an experience that begs to last.
I discovered his art a few months back, after being assigned a movie review in my water policy and science class. The assignment was very open-ended: watch a movie about a river, and write an essay discussing the importance of the water to the film. We were provided a list of possible films, but I went for the raw Google search. That search turned up the film, Andy Goldsworthy’s Rivers & Tides:
It ended up being the subject of my review, which I’ve shared below. It seems especially timely, since we’re transitioning from a focus on art and complexity to a focus on water and sustainability. If you enjoy the review, I’d highly recommend renting the video. I rented it from itunes for a few dollars, and watched it on the computer. Even though I was supposed to be doing homework, it turned out to be the best couple dollars I spent all semester. So, read the review, then go check out the movie for yourself!
Rivers and Tides: The Art of Andy Goldsworthy
Rivers and Tides is an art documentary exploring the ephemeral work of Andy Goldsworthy from Penpont, Scotland. The artist works exclusively in nature, creating art that is born from the environment, exists with it, and decays back into the earth with the natural processes of time. Various works are shown in natural scenes, while Goldsworthy describes his methods and inspiration. His soft narration is backed by soothing music, giving the entire film a meditational feel. The scenes include sculptures in ice, stone, and other natural media, but are generally related to the flow of rivers, if only in appearance.
The movie began with a river in an unexpected form-it is frozen. On the surface of the ice of a small pool, Goldsworthy had traced a wavy line, mimicking a meandering river. Then, he repeated the meander using other forms of natural media, such as a row of leaves, lain on a rocky river bank, embellished with twisted and flattened blades of grass. Arranged in a row, the grass revealed the same meander Goldsworthy had traced with his finger on the ice, before the wind lifted the leaves and scattered them onto the river. Next, Goldsworthy shaped chunks of broken icicles into sweeping curves, repeating the meander on a rocky seashore.
Goldsworthy depended on natural tools and items to create his work. For instance, the icicle sculpture was "glued" with a mixture of snow and ice, and shaped with the most convenient tool for cutting–Goldsworthy’s teeth. Sticks, leaves, ice, and the water of a river, all became elements of his art. Yet, the most intriguing medium that the artist worked with was time. The icicle sculpture was finished just as the sun rose, illuminating the winding meander. Soon, the sun’s heat melted the ice, and the glowing bends dripped and fell away. A whirlpool of sticks built in a tidal estuary was slowly washed out to sea. "It feels like it has been taken into another plane, taken off into another world, another work." Goldsworthy said, watching his carefully-constructed sculpture float away on the waves, "It doesn’t feel at all like destruction."
The natural elements, combined with the ravages of time, Goldsworthy’s work echoed the ephemeral aspect of nature. The world around us is constantly changing, with water as a most essential agent of that change. The rivers shape the land, the land directs the rivers. Something about the art reveals another connection between the river and nature; the flow of the water seems to give rise to life itself. A string of leaves, released into a gently flowing pool by Goldsworthy, seemed to be alive as it wound snake-like downstream.
Penpont, the artist’s home in Scotland, was an important source of inspiration to Goldsworthy. In the film, he was shown near his home, first building stone cairns along the riverbank, and later arranging pictures using poisonous stalks called "bracken." Despite the plant’s dangerous nature, Goldsworthy explained that it was one of his favorite items to work with. "I think we misread the landscape when we think of it as pastoral or pretty. There is a darker side to that." He held up one of the stalks; the root end was stalk is black, and the top a rusty orange, which created a beautiful contrast for his work: a black square surrounding a pale orange circle, which appeared to be the sun reflecting on the surface of a pool of water. He explained how the different colors, to him, represented the exchange of energy between the land and what is above it.
The film reflected on time and change, both through Goldsworthy’s art and his personal life. The sculptures moved by tides, leaves moved by river currents, and poisonous stalks channeling flow were all highlighted by their ephemeral nature. But the also film follows Goldsworthy around his home village, where he explains the slow, but constant changes there. People grow from young to old, businesses come and go; the juxtaposition of these artistic scenes and memorabilia suggests that we are as much a part of nature’s transient aspect as any leaf or stone.
A stream of yellow flowers wound gently through the forest. A chain of red leaves was laid against green grass and hedges. Nearby, ripples murmured gently in a river, just downstream from charging rapids. A ball of marigolds rested momentarily, in a divot in a boulder by a waterfall, looking very much like a patch of lichen. The scene was natural, yet guided. The bright colors sat as reminders of never-ending seasons, as the sound of falling water echoed constantly, like the turbulence of daily life. It is in this complex, yet peaceful scene, that Goldsworthy explained how the river became his most provocative source of inspiration:
"Somehow the river is that line that I follow. The river has an unpredictability about it–it really is unpredictable–and that line, running through, yet at the same time, having its own cycles related to the weather and the sea… so if I had to find something to join the year together, it would be something like the river."
In the following scene, a vine was seen dangling from tree branches over a wide river. The camera followed the vine, as wound about through a jungle, around thick trees, and into a grassy meadow, with sheep grazing nearby. As the scene continues, a shepherd appeared and crooked one of the sheep. Shortly thereafter, the ewe gave birth to a newborn lamb. Goldsworthy watched, no doubt thinking of the complex cycles of life and life’s connection to the river. This scene captured the essence of the film: life, connected to the river, creates art. Art, connected to the river, creates life. We’re caught up somewhere in the middle, left to admire the beauty and complexity of all creation.
"The very thing that brought the thing to be is the thing that will cause its death," Goldsworthy explains, as his elegant, spiraled constructions once again become random piles of stones on the beach. As with Andy's stones, so with our lives.
"Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time" is a documentary that opened in San Francisco in mid-2002 and just kept running, moving from one theater to another, finding its audience not so much through word of mouth as through hand on elbow, as friends steered friends into the theater, telling them that this was a movie they had to see. I started getting e-mails about it months ago. Had I seen it? I hadn't even heard of it.
It is a film about a man wholly absorbed in the moment. He wanders woods and riverbanks, finding materials and playing with them, fitting them together, piling them up, weaving them, creating beautiful arrangements that he photographs before they return to chaos. He knows that you can warm the end of an icicle just enough to make it start to melt, and then hold it against another icicle, and it will stick. With that knowledge, he makes an ice sculpture, and then it melts in the sun and is over.
Some of his constructions are of magical beauty, as if left behind by beings who disappeared before the dawn. He finds a way to arrange twigs in a kind of web. He makes a spiral of rocks that fans out from a small base and then closes in again, a weight on top holding it together. This is not easy, and he gives us pointers: "Top control can be the death of a work." Often Andy will be ... almost there ... right on the edge ... holding his breath as one last piece goes into place ... and then the whole construction will collapse, and he will look deflated, defeated, for a moment ("Damn!"), and then start again: "When I build something, I often take it to the very edge of its collapse, and that's a very beautiful balance." His art needs no explanation. We go into modern art galleries and find work we cannot comprehend as art. We see Damien Hurst's sheep, cut down the middle and embedded in plastic, and we cannot understand how it won the Turner Prize (forgetting that no one thought Turner was making art, either). We suppose that Concepts and Statements are involved.
But with Andy Goldsworthy, not one word of explanation is necessary, because every single one of us has made something like his art. We have piled stones or made architectural constructions out of sand, or played Pick-Up Stix, and we know exactly what he is trying to do--and why. Yes, why, because his art takes him into that Zone where time drops away and we forget our left-brain concerns and are utterly absorbed by whether this ... could go like this ... without the whole thing falling apart.
The documentary, directed, photographed and edited by Thomas Riedelsheimer, a German filmmaker, goes home with Goldsworthy to Penpont, Scotland, where we see him spending some time with his wife and kids. It follows him to a museum in the South of France, and to an old stone wall in Canada that he wants to rebuild in his own way. It visits with him old stone markers high in mountains, built by early travelers to mark the path.
And it offers extraordinary beauty. We watch as he smashes stones to release their cyan content and uses that bright-red dye to make spectacular patterns in the currents and whirlpools of streams. We see a long rope of linked leaves, bright green, uncoil as it floats downstream. Before, we saw only the surface of the water, but now the movement of the leaves reveals its current and structure. What a happy man. Watching this movie is like daydreaming.