What struck me was the sense of energy when you were outside of the art college. It was very secure in the art college. Soon as you made something outside, there was a sum of breathlessness and an uncertainty. Total control can be the death of a work.
—Andy Goldsworthy, Rivers and Tides
For contemporary British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, art is not something to be created indoors or placed on a pedestal. For him, art is not a “thing” at all, but instead a process over time that helps one understand the forces that simultaneously compose and destroy our physical environments, personal and political histories, identities, and bodies.
Goldsworthy’s work and attitude resonate most clearly with the work of naturalist writers like Thoreau, Whitman, Edward Abbey, and Seamus Heaney. Goldsworthy too uses the natural environment to explore histories and experiences that are quickly being rendered obsolete by industrialization and mass commercialization. He desires to “touch the heart of the place,” to know it, its people, and its history intimately. But this knowledge requires a sustained time and effort that is difficult within the demands of contemporary life. Goldsworthy’s sculptures, their forms determined by landscapes’ raw elements, resist current impulses to carve land into a profitable commodity, instead highlighting the beauty of the environment and its natural processes.
Such naturalism raises an interesting contradiction for Thomas Riedelsheimer’s film on the artist, Rivers and Tides: the industrial technology that Goldsworthy rejects rather remarkably captures the poetic beauty of creation and destruction that his art represents. The film itself becomes a testament to the ideal synthesis between an industrialized form and its naturalist subject matter.
Goldsworthy’s art persistently questions contemporary definitions of “usefulness.” While constructing a stone structure on a beach with the tide quickly rising, he admonishes the camera crew, “I think you should stop filming and collect stones instead. Do something useful.” The command sounds ironic, since his art must seem to many observers the epitome of uselessness: he takes the detritus of his surroundings—broken stones, fallen leaves, ice, dead reeds, driftwood—to construct living sculptures that will eventually be disassembled by weather (the wind, the tide, and the sun). But Goldsworthy and the film argue that the seemingly useless might provide deep insights into our surroundings and ourselves.
According to Goldsworthy, we must re-examine the mundane in order to break through our habitual and clichéd perceptions. While building a fleece border on a stone wall in Scotland, he ruminates, “Our perception of the sheep is so different from the reality of the sheep.” We anthropomorphize sheep as friendly, lovable creatures, whereas they have devastated the vegetation of the Scottish landscape with their grazing; sheep also brought on the socio-political upheavals of the Highland clearances that dispossessed thousands of peasants from their land in order to provide grazing fields for the landowners’ herds. But historical and perceptual myopia prevents individuals from noticing such material details of the sheep’s “nature.”
Just as the sheep have dispossessed the peasants, Rivers and Tides suggests that the rapid pace of contemporary life has dispossessed people of their surroundings by denying the time necessary for intimate associations Since 1985, Goldsworthy has moved steadily northward through Great Britain, to rural Scotland, for precisely this reason. He recalls that during his initial move to Penpont, he met an old woman who had resided in the village all of her life. After he told her about the birth of his youngest child, she stated, “Where you see only births, I see only deaths”; most of her friends in town had died. The surrounding houses, for her, suggested absence and death rather than life and birth as they did for Goldsworthy.
Goldsworthy’s art demonstrates this lesson—that one must acknowledge both life and death in order to know a place—through its construction and design, using the processes of the present to connect with both the past and future. For a piece in Nova Scotia, he locates a fishing hole that is empty of water due to low tide and takes driftwood from the shore to construct a dome, its shape emulating the circulating eddies of the river. After the piece is “completed,” a local villager wanders by, explaining that this fishing hole used to be a good place to fish for carp when the villager was a child. Here we see a symbiosis between Goldsworthy’s intuitive understanding of the landscape and the personal history of one of its inhabitants.
Yet, calling the artwork “completed” at this stage is a misnomer, since Goldsworthy had specifically designed it so that high tide would lift the sculpture into the river, where currents would reshape its structure. A long overhead shot follows, showing the tide taking up the structure and slowly pulling it out. The dome’s shape mirrors the circular movement of the river as the pieces of wood slowly drift apart, movement and shape becoming one. But rather than merely destroying the structure, the river’s movement heightens its beauty as the water interweaves into its framework. In voiceover, Goldsworthy observes, “It feels like it’s being taken off into another plane, taken off into another world, or another work. Doesn’t feel at all like destruction.”
Goldsworthy’s piece exposes the futility of asking whether he/the artist or nature is responsible for the piece’s beauty, which depends on their interpenetrations, of art and nature, creation and destruction. The slippage between art and nature leads viewers to realize that the “art work” is as much a part of its surroundings as the surroundings are a part of the “work.” This is perhaps best exemplified by the film’s closing images, various shots of miraculous vapors twirling before us, light scintillating through them, obeying their own laws of motion and color. A cut reveals that Goldsworthy is simply picking up snow and throwing it. Never has the world seemed so new.
Hopefully, Rivers and Tides release on DVD will introduce it to wider audiences than its limited U.S. theatrical release garnered in 2003. The DVD provides seven additional short films, offering extended footage of the featured artworks. Just as Goldsworthy’s work uses the flow of time to show art’s interconnection with life, Rivers and Tides illustrates cinema’s intimate connection with the natural world, so that technology and so-called nature become part of one mesmerizing process.