Rivers and Tides (2006)

[27 November 2006]

By Jarrett Berman

Biodegradable

“Our urge to make snowballs is matched by our urge to destroy them.”
—Andy Goldsworthy

You won’t find much of Andy Goldsworthy’s work in a gallery; unless of course, that gallery is a tidal basin in Nova Scotia; or a hillside in the Scottish highlands.  The artist’s subversive, organic creations are found more often in the wild than in captivity, and many of them cannot be found at all, anymore.  Goldsworthy is probably best described as a “sculptor”, but he is much more than that.  He is the philosopher-king of sculptors, who creates standing works that will last for centuries, and lasting works that will stand for seconds. The sensation one gets from his art is akin to a meditative high.  It is multidimensional: tranquil, exhilarating, confrontational, and transcendent.  This is his gift, and his journey: to make contact with the world. 

Released in 2000 to great critical acclaim, Rivers and Tides is both a documentary and collaboration between a filmmaker and his subject.  Apart from showcasing Goldsworthy’s work, German director Thomas Riedelsheimer’s camera captures the natural patterns that surround and inspire the artist.  Combining symmetry and chaos, Goldsworthy’s aesthetic is unique.  “Total control can be the death of a work”, he suggests mischievously.  It’s just one of Andy’s myriad aphorisms, but there’s no denying his genius.  The artist goes his own way, jamming with nature in grand experiments that—if not caught on film—might never be seen by human eyes. 

We’re taken as rare guests from the fields of Britain to the rivers of Nova Scotia and
America, where Goldsworthy works mostly alone, in anonymity. Each of his creations is exquisitely beautiful, from the writhing, snowy aperitif that opens the film, to the monumental stonewall that still today runs through Storm King, New York.  These are thrilling works both, epic and ephemeral.  Above all, there is a distinct sense of origin in Rivers and Tides.  Whether he’s using sheep’s wool from his farm in Scotland, or locally mined clay in Provence, Goldsworthy embraces the concept winemakers call terroir; highlighting the conditions native to a place that give something its unique personality. 

His pieces mark “the cycle of turning”, by playing with time and our ideas of mortality.  They live only briefly, in contrast to our expectations that art is unchanging; an enduring statement meant to outlast its maker.  His best works literally melt in the sun, drown in the tide, and are stolen by the wind.  They are subject to the inexorable forces around them, much as we are, and it is their deconstruction that we’re meant to see: death as a kind of rebirth.  “Our urge to make snowballs is matched by our urge to destroy them,” he remarks slyly.

As director, Riedelsheimer all but abandons the traditional narrative, instead choosing to let Andy, and his work, speak for itself.  In an effective if predictable move, he often manipulates our view by hiding the full scope of Andy’s work in tight shots until the artist has finally stepped away exhausted and satisfied.  There’s hardly enough time to gawk at the resulting totems, and we would no doubt benefit from longer, wider shots, but Riedelsheimer means to feed us piecemeal, as the sculptures grow from mere vision to manifestation.

As its title suggests, the flow of energy is central to Rivers and Tides.  Water is Goldsworthy’s vehicle of choice, used to great effect both in his work and throughout the film.  Rivers give life to his creations, moving, changing, and destroying them.  Tides swell and recede, like grey winds that shift the rock and shape the shore.  But Goldsworthy is also drawn to a more esoteric flow.  “Stone is fluid”, he remarks, equal parts philosopher and geologist.  From fragile wreaths of broken shale, to muscular stone arches, Andy sees energy where most do not.  In his hands, resting bodies become kinetic.  Using only his hands, he fuses melting ice into a breathtaking, erupting life form. He “dialogues” with stone until he understands it, building elegant tower after crumbling tower, until finally achieving a synergy that allows the sculpture to hold, if only for a moment, like a life-sized Jenga.  All the while, his calculus is elusive: How does an artist achieve such defiant architecture? 

Nearly as profound as his renderings, are Goldsworthy’s ruminations. “I need the land”, he says, without a hint of irony.  Indeed, ‘art as nourishment’ is a tenet long embraced, but rarely is it personified so sincerely.  Few artists are compelled to work in the freezing dawn, or at low tide, so that their materials might be appropriately malleable. Even fewer literally bleed from their craft, or transform emotionally as a work takes shape before their eyes.  His palette of thorns, rock, and ice make oil paints look rather timid.  Watching this rugged struggle helps us understand not just the sculpture, but Andy himself.  Goldsworthy’s approach is meticulous, his crafting laborious, the reward uncertain.  It is this perilous uncertainty, this vulnerability that holds his, and our, attention.  “The real work is the change”, he admits, and it becomes clear this master craftsman secretly loves the capriciousness of physics.

Goldsworthy’s marriage of science and mysticism is intriguing.  He is both professor and Buddha, learning as he teaches; moving with quiet grace; building grand spectacles and fragile, Zen moments; each of which serves as an insight into Man’s relationship with nature.  “My art is an attempt to reach beyond the surface appearance”.  His resourcefulness—like creating vivid paint from crushed burgundy stones found in a streambed—is simply stunning. 

The film’s score is in turns lush, spare, solemn, and whimsical, evincing moods as varied as Goldsworthy’s concepts.  Fred Frith’s original composition features an assortment of northern European tones, from plucky flugelhorns to plaintive cellos.  With long stretches of narrative-free footage, the soundtrack is gorgeous, but it also serves to manipulate our mood.  As such, the director’s most sublime moments come when he abandons the musical Prozac and allows the work to breathe in its natural space, such as the quiet, percolate sounds of a forest brook.  Organic in tone and form, Goldsworthy’s pieces align almost seamlessly with their surroundings; you might walk right past one without noticing. “Something so dramatic, so intense, can be so hidden”, he remarks, about the wild red hues he finds outside.  He could just as well be discussing himself, or his work.

Narrated by the artist, Rivers and Tides is two-parts Goldsworthy, and one-part Riedelsheimer, each dependent on the other for a successful presentation.  By avoiding distracting camera tricks (i.e., time-lapse photography), the director encourages our eyes to slowly absorb the evolving work, like an exercise in real-time expression.  Meanwhile, Goldsworthy articulates his visions surprisingly well, providing great ballast to the film.  It’s a treat to hear this sylvan Brit define his work for us, changing our perception with each soft word.  “I like taking something to the very edge of its collapse”, he says, stirring our imagination and intellect alike.  Presumably, his changing art is a corollary to the upheaval and shock in his own life, though we learn almost nothing of Andy’s past.

The film only once provides a glimpse behind the curtain of Goldsworthy’s everyday life.  Far from the reclusive hermit one might expect, he has a large, boisterous family, with fair-haired children, and a wife whose elfish countenance matches his own. Juxtaposed against the artist’s introspective craft is the happy chaos of his young brood, casting in sharp relief the two worlds of one man.  And yet, outside his home, social routines don’t seem to interest Andy.  He is a wandering poet who freely admits: “I am drained by people”. 

We do get to peer inside Goldsworthy’s private library of photographs; the only evidence of his more transient experiments.  “Photography is a way of putting distance between myself and the work, which sometimes helps me to see more clearly what it is that I have made”, he says.  These self-composed snapshots are telling, as a comparison between the perspectives of the artist versus that of the director.

Rivers and Tides connects us to Andy, as he connects with the Earth.  When his nearly complete mosaic of bracken twigs begins to collapse, Goldsworthy tries desperately to stay the house of cards with his hands, as we watch breathlessly.  It is real drama unfolding. Unlike his published books, the film gives Andy’s work motion, the very thing he relishes.  There are giddy moments, like when Goldsworthy lies in the rain for several minutes, then suddenly pulls himself up and disappears off-screen, to reveal the shadow that his body cast while sheltering the dry gravel beneath.  Goldsworthy is a 50-year old boy, gleefully challenging the elements, and Rivers and Tides feels like his show, the forum through which we experience and inevitably judge his art. 

Unfortunately, what we don’t get enough of is Andy’s thought process.  While the video is meant to photograph his work, the narration feels more like a philosophical platform.  “I am so amazed at times that I am actually alive”, he says.  The audience might feel similarly, but what we seek is less ethereal: Where does he find his ideas?  How does he regulate the influx of inspirations?  Does he sketch designs before taking to the shore?  Riedelsheimer reveals none of this; instead content to show the work itself, while Andy speaks in metaphysical abstractions.  Perhaps that’s the magic.

Designed in an elegant, black hardcover, the Rivers and Tides Collector’s Edition opens like a small book to reveal richly photographed stills of Goldsworthy and his works, nestled between twin DVDs.  It’s a handsome presentation that hints at, what one hopes, will soon be a larger book of prints.  Apart from the feature presentation, disc one also offers a still gallery and half a dozen “short films” which include unabridged versions of segments used in the documentary.  Of particular note is “Garlic Leaves”, an intimate portrait of Goldsworthy’s mixed affair with the delicate, pungent plant. 

Disc two features the vignette “Snowballs in Summer”, one of Andy’s less accessible (though no less interesting) projects in London, as well as a 45-minute interview with director Thomas Riedelsheimer, which should have been served as an optional commentary, alongside the feature film.  Riedelsheimer comments more on the challenges of pitching a documentary and choosing the right music, than on craning a steadicam shot over the river, but he does deliver a few surprises.  We learn that he and the enigmatic Goldsworthy occasionally fought, and more significantly, that Riedelsheimer put aside his camera one morning to help Andy erect a stunning cone of ice, where the director experienced an artistic epiphany.

Rivers and Tides is only 90 minutes, but its sedate pacing makes it feel much longer.  It unfolds like a dream, in sleepy, disconnected passages, an ambient journey for both the viewer and its subject.  If God is a child building sandcastles on the beach, then Andy is his understudy. And while much of his work is evanescent, we’ll have no difficulty remembering the man whose astounding achievements continue to inspire us, if only on film.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/rivers-and-tides-2006/