Sunday, September 18, 2011

Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working With Time

by Drew Martin

If you like the work of Andy Goldsworthy then you should see Rivers and Tides, a documentary about him and his work, which is directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer and accompanied by the music of Fred Frith.

I streamed it on Netflix this weekend and was surprised to note that it is from 2001. It is a timeless film because his artwork is timeless.

Goldsworthy talks to the camera, which functions as the narration. In one moment he suggests that the filmmaker make himself useful and put down the camera to help gather stones for a piece he is creating on the beach. It is a sculpture of flat stones he stacks in the shape of a pine cone. Four early attempts collapse while he is working on it due to the loose sand. He shouts a sharp, frustrated "Shit!" which reminds me of myself in such a moment. Finally the work is topped off and the rising sea engulfs it. The stone sculpture disappears under water. He speaks about how it is a gift to the sea. The tide recedes before sunset and exposes the sculpture again. It is beautiful to see it back in the open air after being embraced by the water, as if it has undergone a rite of passage and understands what the sea is about, with all of its creatures.

I have seen Goldsworthy's wall at Storm King Art Center and a lot of his work in photographs but the film captures the cycle of his projects, which is not possible without the ability to record time. His stone walls last years but some of his projects only last a brief moment. For one of these, he spends hours grinding a reddish stone, by hand. In the end, he holds a ball of red pigment and throws it into the river, where the stone came from. The river turns red for a few minutes and then dilutes itself as it moves downstream. During the preparation of the pigment, Goldsworthy speaks about his pursuit of the red. He comments that the red in the stone is from iron, which is the same reason our blood is red. This piece is about making the stone alive again, as it once was in its volcanic birth.

In the end of the film, the camera pans rock cliffs, which seem like unmovable walls and Goldsworthy offers that the stability of stone is undermined by its fluidity. With much of his work, Goldsworthy likes to take it to the edge of collapse. This is perhaps one of the treats of the film; watching Goldsworthy work on something and have it fall down around him. He deeply cares about his work and such a setback is often met with utter frustration but then he sets to rebuilding the structure. He is tireless.

Goldsworthy started documenting his work with photographs in order to show his teachers what he was doing. He mentions Constantin Brâncuşi who asked why should he have to talk about his sculptures when he can show pictures of them.

Much of the film is shot near his home in Scotland. The moist, green hills are full of sheep, stone walls and an exposed nature. Goldsworthy surveys the land and says that people say it is pastoral and pretty but he remarks there is a much darker side because of the history of sheep and how people were displaced and all the trees were cut down in order to accommodate the animals. He also means that there is a life cycle with decay. He comments on how we think of the signs of Spring on the surface but the evidence is below ground, where the heat and moisture blackens and rots the previous year's growth. This is a theme in Goldsworthy's work...what lies below something, affects the surface.

Goldsworthy speaks about his process but his most insightful comments are about life. He explains how he has lived in different places and how five years might seem like enough time to get to know a place, but it is not. He says you need to see children at a bus stop for years and watch them grow and have children of their own. Goldsworthy recalls a conversation he had with an older lady in his village. After mentioning all the people he knew, she remarked "You see only births and I see only deaths." He says it in a way that he was humbled by it and remarks that he tries not to forget this.

The title of the film, Rivers and Tides, seems obvious enough but Goldsworthy explains that the river is about many things, not just water. There is a river of animals and plants. It is all about flow.

One thing I learned from the film is about Goldsworthy's involvement with his projects. We see him throughout the film, piecing together icicles, reeds and scraps of stone but for a more ambitious piece, such as the wall at Storm King, he worked with wallers, who were often removing the pieces he was placing, for the sake of integrity of the wall. For this project Goldsworthy's role was primarily to define the direction of the wall. Although he was on foreign turf, America, the project was close to home because the Center's property was once farmland and what Goldsworthy found at the site where great stretches of derelict walls made over a hundred years ago by Europeans, possibly Scots. What interested him was how trees took shelter near the walls and grew back around them. Goldsworthy says the wall at Storm King "has a line in sympathy with the place through which it travels."

Although Goldsworthy engages with people and has a wife and several children, you see that he is content by himself, comforted by his own silence. Towards the end of the film he says "Words do their job but what I do here says a lot more."

My favorite comment by him is a line that you feel in his work,

"I am so amazed at times that I am actually alive."