A bright fringe of red shining leaves on heavy boulders, a row of leaves changing from greeny white over yellow to dark green, pebbles concentrically arranged from big to small and from dark to light around a black hole, icicles frozen together into a spiral: this is only a pick at random from the meanwhile very popular creations of Andy Goldsworthy.
Goldsworthy’s creation is governed by the principle of the elementary.
Elementary is already his choice of the materials. Andy Goldsworthy processes ‘raw materials’ in the literal sense of the word: materials as they are found in nature. That has certainly been, in primeval times, the starting point of human production as such. But gradually nature itself came to be processed before being subject to further manipulation. No longer the fleece of the sheep is washed and cut: it is the wool that is sheared, combed, spun before entering the fabric as a thread. The same goes for trees, that are sawn up into planks before being transformed into a piece of furniture; for the grain, that after having been submitted to cultural selection is previously ground to flour before being baked into bread; for the clay that is previously moulded into the shape of bricks and baked before entering the masonry. Not so with Goldsworthy: his colours are not just squeezed out of a tube. He uses the very colours found just like that in an autumn forest. They are all over the place. Just like sticks, pebbles, plumes, icicles and all the other materials Goldsworthy is using.
Found materials, thus, that deserve an equally elementary processing. In most cases Andy Goldsworthy restricts himself to the selecting, displacing or rearranging of leaves, pebbles, sticks and boulders. When he uses instruments at all, then equally ‘found’ instruments: the stick with which he scrapes the sand, the thorns with which he sticks the leaves together. More often, he lets nature work on its own, without the intervention of any instrument: as when he lets icicles freeze together. And also in these cases, the forces of nature are not previously isolated and boosted, as is the case with the heath of the fire in an oven. Andy Goldsworthy rather lets his clay dry in the sun. Sometimes the processing is negative: as when man-made structures of sand are dismantled through the tide, or when a snowball collapses when melting, or when the clay enveloping boulders bursts during the process of drying.
And equally minimal is, finally, Andy Golsdworthy's composition. He replaces the variegated chaos of leaves in the forest or pebbles on the beach with a progression from one colour to another, from light to dark, from big to small. He replaces sticks fallen at random on the ground with a circle, or a line. What is laying down on the earth - the ultimate fate of everything susceptible to gravity - Andy Goldsworthy piles up to cones, towers, or even arcs, domes and eggs struggling against gravity. Sometimes the same effect is obtained through a mere shift of the direction in which nature had shaped its materials: icicles pointing vertically in the skies or protruding horizontally from a rock face – or turning around themselves in a spiral.
Thus contrasted as found versus created order, Andy Goldworthy’s creations profile themselves as artificial figures against a natural background. But the new order is not unnatural as such, it is so only in the given context. Lines, cracks, meanders, spirals, concentric forms or chessboard patterns, star-shapes, spheres and eggs: these are all compositions that can be found in nature, but applied to other materials in other contexts. Andy Goldsworthy himself reminds us of that when his composition explicitly refers to other natural phenomena: as when he imposes the spiral-shape of the nautilus shell on leaves.
Sometimes Andy Goldsworthy’s composition is so deceptively natural that we might inadvertently pass it by. That it has been photographed, makes us suspect that there is something to be seen: a mere crack running right through a whole series of pebbles. Until it dawns on us that single pebbles may well crack, but possibly not an entire row! Only then do we realise that the supposedly natural crack is in fact a composition borrowed from nature and imposed upon a series of broken pebbles.
In all cases, Andy Goldsworthy realises a maximal effect, precisely by refraining from isolating his creations from their natural soil. Precisely the untouched virginity of the environment makes the creation visible as a disturbance. That is why nature is not only the provider of raw materials, techniques and processing, but foremost the natural biotope of Andy Goldsworthy’s creations. Transported into an artificial environment, they would lose all their charms. Also in this sense do his creations remain bound to nature by an indissoluble tie.
And that brings us to the meaning of such creation. Andy Goldsworthy is not out at the mere production of a useful object, let alone an object that should please man for its sole beauty. He wants rather to embody the beauty of the act of creation in an exemplary intervention. That is why the often irresistible charm of his work does not derive from the final result, but from the beauty of its creation, the deed to which its owes its existence and that remains visible in the end product. This kind of creation strikes the all too often disturbed chord of harmony with nature: man is allowed to intervene, to bend to his will, even to disturb, but not to rape, let alone to saw off the branch of the tree on which he is sitting. The technical beauty of Andy Goldsworthy’s work can be read as a tacit criticism on the industrial and post-industrial way of production, which no longer processes materials that have been found in nature, but materials that have been submitted to an often endless series of transformations for them to subdue without any resistance to the forces of nature unleashed by man in super-instruments and machines. As when the laser cuts thick steel plates without any resistance. Not to mention the silent violence with which, in the digital dimension, quantities measured in megas and gigas are digested in fractions of seconds. Precisely the astounding ease with which every resistance is eliminated beforehand results in the scaling-up that, already from the pyramids onwards, foreshadows the ultimate tower of Babylon: it is the awe-inspiring ugliness of many a architectural giga-project, that in its monstrous proportions is knocked up in a few months or of the hideous vehicles that in many a science fiction film are launched in space. Andy Goldsworthy’s silent criticism is all the more charming since it speaks through the work itself and is not added to it through some merely external symbolism. No references to Indians, Zen or yin and yang come to spoil or fun.
THE BEAUTY OF ELEMENTARY FORMS
We would do no justice to Andy Goldsworthy’s work when we would reduce it to an embodiment of a harmonious relation to nature. Next to the pleasure in technical beauty, there is the pleasure in the beauty of the forms that are created through such harmonious creation. from way back, man has shown a predilection for forms endowed with a transparent structure: that is what is so charming about straight, curved or broken lines, circles, crosses or chessboards and geometrical patterns in two or three dimensions. As when in the centre of a concentric form there appears a dark hole. Which fascinates, not only because it reminds of the pupil of the eye that already always stole our attention, but also because, of any hole, we want to know what it hides – a curiousness that often is accompanied by fear for whatever might show up: hence the aura of mystery hovering over Andy Goldsworthy’s holes and concentric structures. Sometimes Andy Goldsworthy soothes the anxious tension through filling it in: in the hole an object in the form of a spiral is coiling like a caterpillar in its cocoon, or a tree comes to protrude from it, or a rocky point is poking out of it.
The formal beauty of a concentric form as well as the emotional freight of an encircled hole do not differ from the effect of similar phenomena in nature. The only difference is to be found in the maker: nature or man.
But in some of his works, Andy Goldsworthy is doing more than merely creating a new reality parallel to nature. Now and then, it is as if he tries to imitate an already existing reality: as when a three-dimensional spiral reminds of a nautilus shell. Or when concentrically woven sticks remind us of a birds nest or an eye. Or when sticks with burned tops are arranged in the shape of a cone, and then remind us of a volcano. Or when a fringe of red shining leaves on black boulders remind us of burning rocks. Or when mandorlas remind us of eyes, mouths or vaginas. Or when the crack in a row of broken pebbles remind us of the cracks in dry clay. There are also more ambivalent cases where the ‘reminding of’ is rather a re-creation. As when amidst some real rocks one single rock is enveloped in weather-beaten branches, sun-bleached bones or pieces of bark.
Such ‘reminding of’ is mimesis* in statu nascendi. It differs from completed mimesis* in that we only are ‘reminded of’ something else. We never have the impression of seeing something else as what there is to be seen. It was not Andy Goldsworthy’s intention to evoke a birds nest, bur rather to realise around the hole in the roots of a knotty tree the concentric shape for which it seemed to ask.
Where such quasi-mimetic dimension joins technical beauty and its critical-utopian dimension, as well as the formal beauty of the form and its emotional freight, a tension is created between the multiple layers of the work, that cannot but contribute to a deeper resonance of the whole.
But it makes also clear why it is rather misleading to call Andy Goldsworthy a sculptor – be it an ‘environmental sculptor’ or a ‘sculptor/photographer’.
Not that the materials prevent us to do so. It is not because Andy Goldsworthy does not use traditional materials that he would not be a sculptor: three-dimensional sculpture can be made in whatever material. Whether one belongs to the tradition of Praxiteles, the master of the Western portal at Chartres, Sluter, Michelangelo, Bernini, Rodin or Moore – not the mention the countless masters from other cultures – does not depend on the materials used, but on whether the intervention of the artist transforms his material in something else: like the marble that, under the hands of Michelangelo, is transformed into the flesh of a body, or under the hands of Bernini in the mantle of Saint Theresa. Everyone will agree that such is not Andy Goldsworthy’s intention, even if some of his creations ‘remind of’ something else.
No: Andy Goldsworthy creates real things that do not at all pretend to be something else. That is why he belongs in the world of all those who transform nature into ‘humanised’ nature: from the cook, over the designer of clothes and furniture, gardens and parks, automobiles and machines, to the architects. To be more precise: Andy Goldsworthy belongs to the tradition of garden architecture: from the geometrical renaissance gardens, over the romantic English gardens, to the mystic pebble-gardens of the Japanese, or their modern counter-parts: the ecological landscape. Witness the ‘Sheepfolds Project’ in Cumbria, where Andy Goldsworthy rebuilds in a more artistic fashion the walls formerly built by shepherds. Or we can situate him in the tradition of the more small-scale art of flower arranging (ikebana). But within this group of ‘artists of design’ – designers to call them by their name – he distinguishes himself – just like other giants like Panamarenko – in that he does not contrive functional objects, but objects embodying the mere pleasure of making – and a rather sympathetic kind of making at that: creating in harmony with nature.
That is why Andy Goldsworthy may justifiably be called the master – the artist – of free creation. Which does not prevent that he is not a master of ‘imitation’ – not an ‘artist’ (or 'sculptor’) in the traditional, more limited meaning of the word. Which does not mean that we should condescendingly look down on him. On the contrary: the designer of the cathedral is no lesser god than Van Eyck. But the former is a ‘master of design’ – a master in transforming nature into a product that provides in human needs – the latter is a master in the transformation of oil paint into a mere represented world. And, to distinguish both kinds of masters from each other (and from other masters such as the masters in philosophy or in making love), it would be better when we called the former ‘designers’ and the latter ‘artists’.
Which does not prevent that a thorough understanding of Andy Goldsworthy’s work is only onceivable against the background of the development of art in the twentieth century art. It has no roots whatever in the history of design.
To begin with, there is a certain relation with the Duchamp’s ‘ready mades’, or rather: with the ‘objets trouvés’ of surrealism. That is why we talked about ‘found materials’, ‘found techniques’ and ‘found processing’ in the above.
Next, Andy Goldsworthy’s work is unthinkable without the so called ‘land-art’ which flourished in the seventies. As an offshoot of the happenings and the performances of the sixties, this movement represented a particular version of the ‘dissolving of art into life’: the replacement of conjuring up an imaginary world through real transformation of the real world – in this case: nature. It suffices to refer to the works of Richard Long, who equally limited himself to minimal interventions in the landscape and whose works equally became popular through equally popular books. At the roots of land-art lies the anti-capitalistic gesture of those who were no longer prepared to submit to the logic of the market. It was their intention to free art from the ‘art shops’: the galleries. One of the places where art was to be accommodated was nature, where it would be freely accessible to everyone – and where everyone could create it as well. The descent from land-art equally explains why Andy Goldsworthy is deliberately out at creating ephemeral works – exemplary in the use of withering flowers or melting snow. The predilection for transience is one of the variants of the mimetic taboo: the reluctance to make enduring works of art – with the concomitant obligation to measure up to the great masters, who, precisely because their works are enduring, continue to project their castrating shadows far into the future. Both strivings inherited from land-art were doomed to failure. It soon became apparent that land-art was not accessible at all. And it surely would have been a pity to deliver such marvellous creations as Andy Goldsworthys icicles to decay. That is why the anti-capitalistic and anti-mimetic land-art was fixed on photographs or videos and sold at a bargain. Albeit not in the gallery, but in the bookshop.
The remarkable thing about all this is that of all places here, in the very bastion of modern art, we stumble upon something that has supposedly been utterly banned from it: unbroken beauty! It is only most regrettable that this beauty must bloom on a corpse: that of the art of sculpture.
© Stefan Beyst, June 2002
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* See 'Mimesis', 'Mimesis and Art', 'Mimesis and Abstraction'
GOLDSWORTHY, Andy: ‘Hand to Earth: Andy Goldsworthy’, Henry Moore Centre, Leeds, England, 1990.
GOLDSWORTHY, Andy: ‘Andy Goldsworthy: A Collaboration with Nature’, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1990.
GOLDSWORTHY, Andy: ‘Stone’, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1994.
GOLDSWORTHY, Andy: ‘Wood’, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1995.
GOLDSWORTHY, Andy: ‘Wall’, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1995.
GOLDSWORTHY, Andy: ‘Arch’, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1999.
GOLDSWORTHY, Andy: 'Time', Cameron Books, Moffat, Dumfriesshire Schotland 2000.
GOLDSWORTHY, Andy: ‘Midsummer Snowballs', Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 2001.
GOLDSWORTHY, Andy: 'Passage', Thames & Hudson, 2004.
Background to this text: stefan beyst: theory on art