Monday, March 13, 2006

Rivers & Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working With Time

My roommate recently rented Rivers and Tides, a documentary about Andy Goldsworthy. What a wonderful movie! Goldsworthy is an abstract sculptor who works with natural materials -- rocks, leaves, moss, ice. His art is generally installed in the areas where the materials come from (there is one indoor installation in the movie where he uses clay) and is also distinguished by its ephemerality. Except for some of the stone installations, most of what Goldsworthy creates -- like some beautiful arrangements of fall leaves -- is meant to be taken apart, either slowly or quickly, by the natural world. He documents them with photographs.

Anyway, the film is episodic, following him from one project to another. The main interest is the art itself, and my attention flagged a little any time the movie started to focus on Goldsworthy's life, conversation, or family. Goldsworthy seems like a nice guy, and he is very interesting when talking about the natural world -- about spores, bracken, and how to stabilize clay (hair, apparently) -- but vague and tedious when he talks about his art: he has to resort often to words like "energy," and then, much to his credit, realizes that he is not saying much and stops. One of the loveliest things about his art, in fact, is that it requires no analysis; I can't think of another modern artist whose work almost everyone would find beautiful.

Goldsworthy's art taps into some very universal sources of beauty -- fall leaves, the sun shining through ice; and the shapes he is obsessed with -- a line that winds back and forth like a river, a circle that, like the sun, appears to have been cut out of something -- all have something elemental about them. The art shows us how to notice the natural beauty that is overlooked because it both common and chaotic; by supplying an element of order that appears to have risen organically out of the material, he points out the beauty that is always there.

What I found inspiring about it is that this is not only art that anyone can appreciate; it is art that anyone can make, although Goldsworthy admittedly has incredible patience and a brlliant eye. In one scene, for example, he grinds iron-rich stones he finds in a stream and tosses the red powder into the water; the camera follows the color as it swirls and defuses through the current. It is lovely, but it is exactly the same beauty that exists in a cup of tea, if you bother watching the color seep out of the bag and spread like smoke through the cup. I remember spending hours digging channels in our yard as a kid, and using the hose to make the water run through them. There is something instinctual in the kinds of things that Goldsworthy does -- an instinct that seems to be getting increasingly foreign as we lose contact with the natural world.

It is true, there are plenty of beauties in the unnatural world as well, but I feel like the ability to sense them begins with an appreciation of the natural. I remember seeing a purple dragonfly in Madagascar and thinking that its wings looked like cellophane, and then noticing how odd it was that, when struck by a natural phenomenon, I always made analogies to the synthesized, as opposed to the other way around. But I immediately recognized that the dragonfly's wings were lovely, and I would probably never have thought that about cellophane. But cling wrap actually is rather beautiful, as amazing a sign of human capacity as the dragonfly is of evolution.

Anyway, just some thoughts as I sit in a typical office building, where vast resources have been used to create something that, taken as a whole, is so astonishingly ugly that one wonders how much longer it will take for our sense of anything but human beauty to be totally stamped out -- how else could we stand continually being in places like this? Since schools, modern office buildings, care facilities for the elderly, and hospitals are coming more and more to ressemble one another, we will soon spend most of lives with flourescent lighting, industrial carpet interspersed with stretches of linoleum, and the hum of the air conditioner. I also find it kind of funny that the the drab beige hallways at my office are distinguished from each other primarily by the works of high art on their walls -- Matisse is an especial favorite, specifically the cut-outs that he did towards the end of his life, when he was going blind.

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