Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working With Time (Thomas Riedelsheimer, 2001)

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2009)

As I write, the snow that has fallen on much of Britain still lies thick outside. With many people over the last few days having wondered at and taken photographs of landscapes made new through this snowfall, and having engaged unselfconsciously with a natural element in a way that is seldom seen except perhaps in summer at the seaside, it seems a good time to look at a beautiful film portrait of an artist who spends his life trying to understand the forms and rhythms of nature on which he bases his work. The film, Rivers and Tides, was made in 2000 by the German director and cinematographer Thomas Riedelsheimer and it’s about the artist Andy Goldsworthy. It’s part documentary and also part artist’s work diary in which Goldsworthy reflects on the creation of some of his extraordinary works in nature, from the most lightly ephemeral – a throw of dust into the air, or wild garlic leaves resting on top of a rock and blown into a stream – to the more permanent large-scale commissions such as his serpentine stone wall at Storm King art centre in New York. Along the way we get to learn just a little of the effort that goes into creating something that appears effortless. Appropriately enough, the film begins and ends with snow.

‘I want to understand that state and that energy that I have in me that I feel in the plants and in the land,’ says Goldsworthy at the outset. Growth, time, change and the idea of flow in nature; these are the constant companions in his art. There’s the flow of water obviously, and time and again the film returns to the river where he works at his home in Dumfries, but Riedelsheimer’s skill in this documentary is that he alerts you to the related flow in, for example, stone and in bark, eloquently showing what Goldsworthy can only haltingly communicate through his words.

The film is full of moments of wonder, one of which comes near the beginning as, after feeling disconnected from the land after a flight to Nova Scotia, Goldsworthy goes out at four in the morning to try to to engage with his new environment. He works with pieces of icicles, holding them in his bare hands until they freeze together to curve around the top of a boulder. He finishes when the sun is up and the sculpture is illuminated wonderfully, thoroughly inhabited, by the rising sun, the very thing that will bring about its destruction. ‘So often,’ says Goldsworthy, ‘the very thing that brings the work to life is the thing that will cause its death.’

This film is a corrective for anyone who is tempted to view Goldsworthy’s work as a merely whimsical rearrangement of nature. The close-ups of his farmer’s hands with their blackened and broken nails and plastered cracks is testament enough to that. Rather, it’s an attempt to get to the very heart of his enterprise which is an absolute dedication to understanding the elements of the natural world and their interconnected rhythm and flow. In short, this is a film about the sheer bloody-minded hard work, often in the damp and the freezing cold, that lies behind the sense of joyous, childlike wonder his sculptures can provoke. At one point he is shown working in the middle of winter drizzle in Dumfries as he pulls blackened bracken stalks from the ground; beneath his waterproof coat he is wearing three separate layers of fleece. ‘Good art keeps you warm,’ he says.

Though Goldsworthy’s sculptures appear deceptively simple – and this is part of the wonder they provoke – they are the product of years of working nearly every single day with the tools of his trade: water and earth, wood, stone, leaves, twigs and flower petals, aiming always at an understanding of his materials through experimentation and learning. His understanding of natural engineering is nowhere better illustrated here than with his length of green hazel leaves pinned together with thorns that slowly unfurls like a long reticulated amphibian in the river. Fragile but unbroken, it twists and turns downstream with the current.

It’s instructive to see the failures too, the sculptures that don’t come off, as these are an essential part of an artist’s work, especially one who takes the possibilities and inherent qualities of natural objects to their limits. In one sequence a built cone of stones on a beach falls four times, getting stronger with each attempt. When it is finally completed it is, Goldsworthy says, completed by the sea, given to the sea as a gift. The following morning, with the light of dawn on the horizon, the sea returns it to the air and – incredibly, given the difficulties of its construction – we see it emerge from beneath the water into a new day.

Natural colours in juxtaposition provide startling sights that at first glance seem unnatural: the blood red of iron stone, rubbed into pigment and then loosed into the flow of the stream or into a rock pool where it looks like blood in the water; or the surface of a rock pool covered with bright leaves, shading on one side from umber, through scarlet, tangerine, lemon and lime to mint and then to the green of rich pasture, or a trail of dandelion heads through a bluebell wood. At other times it is the colour black that startles, as with a peat-covered boulder that illustrates a point about the absence sheep create in a landscape. It’s a film to alert your eyes to colour and reawaken a child’s sense of wonder too. A dandelion’s head is yellow of course, but how often do you look to see just how many shades of yellow there are in this common flower? As they sit in a rockpool, their colours, from sulphurous yellow to greeny-gold and marigold orange, seem more apparent than before. As Goldsworthy says, his work is about ‘revealing patterns and forms – seeing something you never saw before but which was always there but which you were blind to.’

Early on when Goldsworthy makes a driftwood whirl as an attempt to understand the meeting of the flow of a river with the current of the sea, a man comes up to him and tells him about the salmon hole that’s next to where he is building the structure that will later go floating off on the current. I’m reminded of the film Running Fence by Albert and David Maysles about Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s 1976 project to erect a 24 ½ mile long, 18 ft high nylon drape running through two counties of California and on into the sea. The alluring combination of ephemeral beauty, good design and practicality saw people wanting to get close to the art, literally so in the case of  one of the ranchers on whose land the fence was sited. After appreciating how firmly the poles were fixed in the ground, he saids, ‘I think I’m going to come and sleep up here tonight, it’s so nice, sleep right up next to the fence.’

Rivers and Tides is an astute and sympathetic film portrait of a man and his art, photographed beautifully and complemented well by Fred Frith’s music. It knows how to make connections that Goldsworthy struggles to put into words. Indeed, in contrast to his half-formed and touchingly halting explanations of his work, it is his art that has all the eloquence here. What is perhaps most surprising is that, given that all his cues are taken from trying to understand the forces, bonds and rhythms and ceaseless change in nature, the very same nature that surrounds all of us, and on which we rely so thoroughly but which we often disparage or ignore, is that his work is just about unique.

The film ends with some of the most ephemeral of Goldsworthy’s works – throws of dust and snow to the sky, where their twisting wraiths of red powder and sparkling ice glimmer, glisten and disappear into light and shade. After his final throw, Goldsworthy walks out of the camera shot and brushes himself down, the snow drifting away from his body on the wind like the throws he has just produced, a man unconsciously at one with his art.

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