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Try to picture an art piece that cannot be put in a museum, purchased by wealthy collectors, or displayed in a corporate foyer or boardroom – because it disintegrates in less than a day, perhaps even within 20 seconds. Try to imagine executing artwork through the medium of iron oxide chalk, raw sheep’s wool, flower blossoms, leaves and grass, feathers, random sticks and stones, broken rocks, pieces of icicle, green iris blades and red berries, thorns, bracken, or handfuls of snow. Try to fathom the notion that an artist could a take stroll in the woods, along a riverbank, down a beach, and with no tools at all – no paint brushes, no sculptor’s chisels or knives, no canvases or pedestals or quarried granite or polished wood – manage to create unutterably beautiful art from the objects and materials he finds by chance.

Often it seems that contemporary art has become a largely academic exercise, with artists frantically carving out tiny niches of discrete subject matter or distinctive media in which to say something, show something faintly “original.” But for more than two decades, Scottish sculptor Andy Goldsworthy has quietly been blowing that notion to smithereens. He’s the visual art world’s equivalent of Italo Calvino, who celebrated the wide-open choices available to him as a writer of short stories and novels while others lamented the death of the novel. Goldsworthy calmly demonstrates over and over that the forms, styles, and media available to the artist are approximately infinite.

In the documentary by German filmmaker Thomas Riedelsheimer, we watch Goldsworthy build man-sized standing “eggs” of stacked slate on a beach between tides; place a 50-foot spiral “worm” of leaves sewn together with grass in a pond, whence it begins to wend its way down a mountain stream; gnaw at icicle shards in order to piece them into a looping snake that seems to pass repeatedly through a stone promontory like a fat crystal thread; construct an “igloo” of driftwood that is carried away by the incoming tide in a stately galactic whirl.

“Art for me is a form of nourishment,” he tells us. Goldsworthy seeks the “energy that is running through, flowing through the landscape.” Not to capture it, clearly, but to participate in it. He speaks slowly, carefully, and the viewer adjusts to his pace. Not a single abstract spiritual or philosophical term turns up – the sculptor employs direct and concrete words only – but the effect is like a 90-minute session with a Zen master showing us how to “be here, now.”On an icicle job, he notes that heat and melted water created his artistic medium, while the rising sun will destroy it: “the very thing that brought it to life, will bring about its death.” Flying to a commission in Nova Scotia, he says he hates the sensation of travel, and having to go straight to work without getting any time to get the feel of the new locale. Yet he does: “I’ve shook hands with the place . . . and begun.”As we watch the artist make “something from nothing,” usually something startling and gorgeous; as serendipity and the elements (sunshine, wind, water) contribute to the process; and even as pieces he has spent hours on collapse in a heap – one’s concept of what is possible, what constitutes art, becomes as fluid as Goldsworthy’s natural media. Initially the viewer automatically thinks, “oh, it fell apart,” then realizes it doesn’t matter. One feels disappointment a project did not meet one’s expectations, yet rejoices in a different, unforeseen result.

Having isolated pieces of a new environment and formed them into an unexpected artifact, then watched it dissipate back to its component parts in the larger setting, Goldsworthy says, “You feel as if you’ve touched the heart of the place. That’s a way of understanding. Seeing something that you never saw before, that was always there but you were blind to it.” As the tide carries his driftwood igloo out to sea, spinning it slowly and dismantling its structural unity, he remarks: “It feels as if it’s been taken off into another plane, another world. . . . It doesn’t feel at all like destruction.”

The long worm of strung-together leaves reminds the viewer of an emerald green water moccasin, of Chinese dragons, of other references near and far. Subtly, the filmmakers join in the spirit of Goldsworthy’s labor to see things anew. Occasionally the camera takes note of lovely sights and events not immediately related to the artist’s work at hand: a fluff ball walking across the surface of a river, or the subtle prismatic colors in a spray of water.Several times, Riedelsheimer wittily shows us a work in progress, or a piece of the whole, that we don’t understand; or understand in one way, only to see it in a very different light when the camera pulls back. For example, a shockingly bright red-orange liquid trickles down a rock face, plashes into a river, and fans out in skeins of “unnatural color” that we cannot help but associate with blood. (Macbeth’s classic lines come to mind: “this my hand will rather/The multitudinous seas incarnadine,/Making the green one red.”)You think: He’s using applied color! But no, even as Goldsworthy makes the blood reference explicit, you find he has not violated his unwritten law of “all natural ingredients.” He has painstakingly collected red iron ore stones from the river bottom and ground them to a powder, commenting that iron is what makes our blood red as well. When he mixes the powder with water and trickles it across rock or into the stream, the color is a shock: it seems so alien to the river, yet is deeply rooted in it.“I think the color is an expression of life. I am in continuous pursuit of the red. That something so dramatic, so intense, could at the same time be so hidden, underneath the skin of the earth.” A single red Japanese maple tree on a hill of green in Japan “looks like a wound on the mountain,” he says. We set much store by the solidity of stone, he goes on, yet it is only a step in a process that goes from stone to powder to liquid and back to stone. The “stability of stone” is actually a snapshot of fluid, liquid life in which everything, including human beings, participates.This artist’s work might seem utterly apolitical, yet Goldsworthy casually identifies political elements in his projects. At first, when the camera lingers on a Scottish farmer helping a ewe to birth several lambs, it seems a digression into local color. Then Goldsworthy talks about how difficult it is to get past the “wooliness” of sheep to their “dangerous and powerful” qualities: Their status as an economic gold mine denuded the forest landscape of Britain and led to violent labor disputes. While he speaks, he constructs a long, glowing white river of raw wool that gilds the stone walls near his home.(In a similarly subtle political statement, Paul Hawken, founder of the Smith & Hawken gardening chain, chose a Goldsworthy “horn of plenty” sewn from leaves for the cover of his book The Ecology of Commerce: a Declaration of Sustainability.)Not all Goldsworthy’s labor is solitary. “Rivers and Tides” shows us several collaborative projects: one at Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, New York where stone masons build outdoor walls to the artist’s specifications, and another in Digne, France where a crew helps him build an indoor clay wall designed to crack into eye-catching patterns as it dries.With the Storm King project, Riedelsheimer’s camera again starts in close, watching hands place individual stones. Then we get a look at part of the finished wall slaloming between trees. Finally a helicopter shot pulls us high for a breathtaking view of the running wall, which wends its way through forestland for hundreds of yards, and appears to plunge into a lake and out the other side!The documentary is not perfect, by any means. It doesn’t “build a case”; though there’s a lovely coherence and wit to the unveiling of each piece or project, the larger structure seems episodic and disconnected. A brief sequence with Goldsworthy’s wife and kids comes across as garish and out of place. While it’s useful to know he has a family, he himself seems nonplused by them, and having been introduced, one yearns to know how they fit into his life as a professional artist. I for one would have appreciated a little more basic information: How long, or at what times of day, were the obvious time-lapse shots taken? How did Goldsworthy achieve that patterned effect of cracked clay in the Digne wall?Yet simply in bringing Goldsworthy’s work to a larger audience, especially in presenting his pieces in motion and over time in a way that is nearly impossible with art-book collections of still photographs, Riedelsheimer and his crew have done a marvelous thing. The film has taken a while to gather momentum: apparently it debuted at the Munich International Documentary Film Festival in 2001, saw some exposure in the Bay Area in the summer of 2002, and has only begun to see wider general release in early 2003.David Loftus
---------------------------------The last sustained natural art project David Loftus pursued on a regular basis was using a stick to connect pools of rain water that collected in mud ruts in the alleys near his boyhood home in Eugene, Oregon. David Loftus, Writer - AllWatchers.com
CreditsThomas Riedelsheimer – Writer, Director, Cinematographer, Editor
Annedore von Donop – Producer
Fred Frith – Original Score

2001 Documentary, German Camera Award
2002 Best Documentary, San Francisco Film Critics Circle
2002 Golden Gate Award for Film & Video – the Arts, San Francisco International Film Festival
2003 Best Documentary, German Film Critics Association