Atop a Dumfriesshire hill in Scotland sits a large egg-like construction of stone. Three of the same can be found in a vast line across the United States: at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, at Iowa’s Des Moines Art Center and at the Neuberger Museum of Art in the state of New York.
Seen from afar, they could be relics of a bygone age, built of local rock such as Iowan limestone and with no binding cement. They are actually the work of British artist Andy Goldsworthy and his cairn-building team.
Since the 1970s Goldsworthy has been working in Land Art, in the tradition of Richard Long and Robert Smithson. Goldsworthy stages interventions in the landscape that range from the permanent structures of the cairns to ephemeral arrangements of bright-orange leaves plastered to trees, or icicles balanced on branches hanging over streams.
The permanent and the ephemeral are equally concerned with the passing of time. Over the years the cairns accrue signs of wear such as moss. His use of leaves and ice is intimately bound up with cycles in nature and the inevitable end of each piece. Goldsworthy charts these changes in folio artbooks, such as Passage (2004) and Enclosure (2007).
explains his method, tracks the progress of each piece and reflects on the
result in a diary format. This mixture of sculpture, photography and writing is
both a necessary documentation
of his practice and arguably the main result, akin to Richard Long’s use of poem-like notes tracing his thoughts in pieces like A Hundred Mile Walk (1971-2).
Goldsworthy has been dismissed as a sentimental creator of ‘pastoral fictions’. It’s true that he avoids polemic and refuses to make art obviously about environmentalism. This might seem out of touch with human complicity in today’s climate change, but Goldsworthy is fully concerned with our interaction with the landscape: he worked on farms in Yorkshire from a young age and engages with the communities that live near his rural works.
His work is not radical, he simply points back to nature with a conceptual simplicity. In an interview with the Tate he muses, ‘an artist has this amazing ability to show you what’s there’ – showing us what’s there is pointing out what we stand to lose.
His popularity has led to a second documentary, Leaning into the Wind: Andy Goldsworthy (2018) by German director Thomas Riedelsheimer as a follow-up to the earlier Rivers and Tides (2001).
Public commissions include Garden of Stone, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York: a group of eighteen granite boulders each with a small central hole through which a tree is growing.
The piece commemorates victims of the Holocaust and is a beautiful reflection on hope and growth in the midst of an impossibly hard situation.
Compare this to the imposing Mastaba on Hyde Park’s Serpentine Lake last summer, or the enormous inflated ballerina deposited outside the Rockefeller in 2017 right out of the imagination of Jeff Koons (now featured at the Ashmolean, if you hadn’t heard). Two pieces of ephemeral public art, they are the wrecking-ball equivalent of Goldsworthy’s tiny chisel approach.
It’s not all quiet interventions. Goldsworthy’s spell of recent commissions stateside reveal a lucrative business in what could be seen as the bio-art aesthetic, seen again in his award of an OBE in 2000.
However, his daily art practice is refreshingly playful; any- one could collect and arrange leaves into a colourful mosaic, given the time and some outdoor space.
There is something universal about handling nature, exemplified by children’s fascination with mud and sticks. Goldsworthy asks: why stop?