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The Design that is not One: Engendering Design Discourse

The design that was not one: engendering design discourse

This is an exercise in applied theory: a test, an experiment. I’m asking a relatively simple question: To what extent might feminist theory be helpful in understanding graphic design practice?

The title of this paper derives from – parodies? – Luce Irigaray’s famous essay “This Sex Which Is Not One,” first published in French in the 1970s.

The text of my abstract on the other hand proposed an engagement with Hélène Cixous’ notion of écriture féminine, a notion most famously elaborated in her manifesto “The Laugh of the Medusa”, first published in French in 1975.

These two pieces are not so distant from one another that we cannot attempt to read them together, to commingle them.

Why these two? Why only these two? Might we not have set out from other classic texts of feminist theory? Are these two necessarily the most fecund for our purposes simply because they are among the most famous?

In avoiding these questions, I will admit a certain naiveté on my part, a certain ignorance and inexperience with feminism. These are not the faults of a dogmatist, nor those of a specialist. I am speaking today as an amateur, a non-specialist. Thus there may be questions that I might raise that I cannot hope to answer, issues related to the topic of feminist design that I cannot address and about which I can only speculate.

This ignorance will be peculiar in that the materials under consideration are themselves so well known. Yet it is also appropriate to them. I am not speaking as a “master” of these pieces.

This caveat in mind, let’s return to my textual sources. They date from the 1970s, which we might now look back upon as an “heroic” era of feminist struggle, not the only heroic era, surely, but one among them.

That we may look back suggests a certain distance from that era, and perhaps from its concerns and struggles. This distance is part of our topic today. To what extent were the struggles of that era the struggles of a different generation? As always, we must be attentive to this historical difference. If the struggles that produced these texts were the struggles of a different generation, how might the texts still be generative for us, for our concerns, for generating design discourse today?

If, on the one hand, yesterday’s problems still remain problems today, why should we return to yesterday’s (theoretical) solutions? On the other, if yesterday’s solutions really were solutions, if they did effect change in their day, what might we make of them today? Are these texts artifacts from a by-gone age, like armaments kept in a museum, or might they still have something to teach us, something that we haven’t yet heard?

Our task then: the re-inscription of a certain theory of writing as a theory of design, attentive to the status of that re-inscription as repetition or redirection.

Female/ Feminine/ Feminist

Toward this end I propose a schematic historical account of women in graphic design and graphic design writing, a theoretical exposition of Hélène Cixous’ notion of écriture féminine and of Luce Irigaray’s notion of the “sex that is not one”, and a discussion of feminist design as it has been presented by one design writer in particular, Maud Lavin. A presentation in three parts then.

My paper bears a subtitle: “Engendering design discourse”. This phrase is programmatic, the articulation of a purpose, but it may also serve as a first premise. Gendering and engendering are not at all the same thing. In what follows I appeal to feminist theory to substantiate the claim that these two terms are in fact mutually exclusive. To the extent that one is interested in gendered discourse one is not interested in engendering discourse. One irony of écriture féminine is that it defines an open field rather than a closed one.

Insofar as design is celebrated as the authoritative creation of a singularly heroic creator, whether male or female, and promoted as a singularly successful vehicle of clear communication, it is representative of the repressive phallogocentric Western tradition.

More significantly still, I think, by reading graphic design through écriture féminine, I propose a means of subverting the dominant discursive (I won’t say critical) approach to graphic design in our time – subverting the ideology of communicative clarity – and thereby shifting critical debate about graphic design and its place in contemporary culture. Put plainly, the dominant discursive approach to graphic design in our time stipulates that graphic design objects be understood primarily as circumscribed by a communicative function. This ideology is, of course, an extension of the phallogocentric tradition that écriture féminine, among other strategies of poststructuralist cultural creation and critique, subverts. As a theoretical model for the creation and interpretation of design objects, écriture féminine encourages us to view graphic design objects as inherently open, multiple, and heterogeneous, rooted in physical materiality but signifying much more than can be summarized in the “messages” they communicate.

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Female

Before we begin our theoretical exposition we should recall the history of women in graphic design, however schematically.

Fortunately, this task has already been undertaken on several occasions by feminist design historians. Maud Lavin, for example, produced a portfolio of women in design in the mid-1990s that we will return to. Already at that time, a decade ago, Lavin could report that women outnumbered men in graphic design. This fact is obscured to some extent in the standard design history books due to their focus on highly influential or iconic works – masterpieces in the traditional and problematic sense of this term. I suggest however that the history of women in graphic design is only partially obscured by the traditional approach of history books as one can in fact find numerous women designers among those celebrated for work produced during the past thirty years, since the 1970s in particular when women entered the design fields, among other fields, en masse.

It would be foolish to attempt an exhaustive list of prominent women in graphic design but it would be similarly foolish to deny that a number of women should be considered among the most significant leaders in the field at the present time. Paula Scher, April Greiman, Katherine McCoy, Lorraine Wild, and Ellen Lupton are only a few of those who spring immediately to mind.

Another measure of the presence of women in graphic design can be read in the contents of the “Looking Closer” series of volumes collecting recent and “classic” writings about graphic design. The series is edited by a small group of primarily male designers, all closely linked to the New York based American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) and Allworth Press. Five volumes have appeared thus far. Volume three collects ninety years of “classic” design writings from 1893 to the 1980s. Of the fifty seven chapters, five including contributions by women: less than 10%. Volume two, by contrast, collects writings from the mid-1990s and sixteen of its forty-three contributors were women; almost 40%; a phenomenal increase.

Yet one might nevertheless wonder why – if women were more numerous than men in the field by the mid-1990s – this number was not higher. And one might offer several generous but facile reasons for this. Many of those women might have been relatively new to the field and still too junior and therefore too busy to spend time writing about it. Or women might have been too busy balancing their responsibilities as workers, wives, and mothers to have free time to write. Maybe they were busy simply doing other things. After all, why write? None of these answers is quite satisfying.

I maintain unequivocally that there is such a thing as marked writing; that, until now, far more extensively and repressively than is ever suspected or admitted, writing has been run by a libidinal and cultural – hence political, typically masculine – economy.         Hélène Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa, 249

Put forcefully, and speaking to the main point of this paper, writing might fundamentally be a masculine activity, particularly writing in and for the public sphere. Cixous proposed écriture féminine as a diagnosis of this situation and as a solution to it.

Cixous’ argument is not only that men dominate the libidinal, cultural, and political economy in which writing – including writing about design – appears, but that that economy is fundamentally a masculine, phallogocentric economy.

To conclude our historical survey, we might observe that women are visibly present in contemporary graphic design practice but that they have not yet been spoken for.

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Feminine

The first paragraph of The Laugh of the Medusa

I shall speak about women’s writing: about what it will do. Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies – for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Woman must put herself into the text – as into the world and into history – by her own movement. The future must no longer be determined by the past. (Cixous 245)

The Laugh of the Medusa is a manifesto for écriture féminine and as such it contains a fair amount of polemic. Some of Cixous’ claims fly in the face of good philosophy more so even than she intends. She intends to dismantle nothing less than the entirety of the repressive phallogocentric Western tradition, but her polemic occasionally reverts to the kind of essentialist thinking that is her primary foe. I would rather not get bogged down accounting for these faults of militant rhetoric. The essential point is that Cixous’ thought challenges the binary thinking that is the basis of Western civilization, and indeed of many other civilizations as well. Cixous’ project, in other words, continues a tradition of radical cultural critique, a tradition she shares with many male and female writers.

The phallogocentric tradition can be summarized through a series of binary oppositions that form its core values. The terms on the left are praised, those on the right denigrated.

mind / body
sacred / profane
logos / pathos
communication / ambiguity
idea / instance
presence / absence
activity / passivity
sun / moon
culture / nature
day / night
father / mother
head / heart
intelligible / palpable
function / form
center / margin
man / woman
masculine / feminine
phallus / vagina
heterosexual / non-heterosexual
white / black
speaking / writing
high / low
masterpiece / minor work
homogeneity / heterogeneity
unity / diversity
singular / plural
art / design

Cixous’ work is feminist to the extent that it extends this critique to areas of specific concern to women.

Cixous’ challenges these oppositions not simply by proposing to shift the emphasis from one term to the other, though this does occasionally occur. Rather, she undermines oppositional thinking in general by proposing medial terms and writing in such a way as to undermine any certain emphasis on one pole or another of the binary opposition.

Where masculine writing, in her model, is logical, argumentative, discursive, certain of itself, clear and unambiguous, écriture feminine or writing in the feminine is on the other hand at once potentially the opposite of these things and, for this reason, capable of undermining the very duality itself. Ecriture féminine is an anti-logos weapon (Cixous 250)

Whereas masculine writing is a writing of the mind, écriture féminine is writing with the body (Cixous 251). As such it is radically heterogeneous and plural. It is plural at least in part because the mind is part of the body. As every body is distinct, every instance of this writing reflects the radical uniqueness of each body. Masculine writing aspires to the denial of the material instance of its enunciation. Writing in the feminine aspires to include that materiality along with its message.

Writing in the feminine must be understand on the model of a both / and proposition – as both material and communication – and as such as a means to inspect the process of communication itself (Cixous 254).

Similarly, writing in the feminine should be considered bisexual in the sense that it is based upon the non-exclusion of difference and of the multiplication of the effects of the inscription of desire (Cixous 254). Writing in the feminine affirms desire beyond the phallic signifier, beyond the genital, beyond the fetish, beyond the singular form.

Here we are proximate to Irigaray’s notion of “This Sex Which Is Not One”.

Woman does not have a sex. She has at least two of them, but they cannot be identified as ones … her sexuality, always at least double, is in fact plural. Plural as culture now wishes to be plural?             Luce Irigary, This Sex Which Is Not One, 103

The labia are twofold and do not themselves exhaust or complete the organs of a woman’s pleasure. A woman has sex organs just about everywhere. She experiences pleasure almost everywhere (Irigaray 103). A woman, in Irigaray’s description, is much like Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of a desiring machine: a networked conduit for the desire of the other.

All of this in mind, I think écriture feminine offers us a helpful model for thinking about graphic design. Graphic design objects are always already plural. They communicate information by giving visual pleasure. They are the material form of ideas. They always send mixed messages. They are writing with the body. Graphic design gives multiple forms of pleasure: the pleasure of the thought, the pleasure of the instance, the pleasure of allusion, for graphic design objects generally signal or point to something beyond themselves. Graphic design cannot be understood as representational, to be evaluated in isolation from the networks of information and event which support it. Indeed to appreciate design as a pure formal construct, as if it were Fine Art, is to misunderstand and under-appreciate that design. In this sense, and again as in écriture féminine, graphic design is always available for the desire of the other. It aspires to be meaningful for you rather than in itself.

I will not attempt an exhaustive survey of these similarities…

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Feminist

Maud Lavin’s “Portfolio: Women and Design” in her book Clean New World presents the work of several female designers who are, she claims, “known for their self-generated work and / or authorial voices”(109). She cites a survey conducted by Martha Scotford to substantiate the notion that “women designers are more likely to use design for personal, political, or social agendas,” but allows that “pressures of time and money make most design practices client-service dominated… [while] only a small subset of designers [male or female]… make ‘personal, political, or social agendas’ a high priority”(109).

These statements beg at least two key questions: Just what exactly does Maud Lavin mean by the word “design”? And what ideology or hierarchy of cultural values is at work in her portfolio of women in design?

Before we answer these questions, we should admit that Lavin’s piece probably wasn’t intended to bear the cultural freight that I’m granting it. Though published in hardcover by The MIT Press, and supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, it is really only a loose collection of anecdotal statements from a more or less randomly gathered group of female designers from the 1990s. Only the almost total absence of genuinely critical writing about graphic design elevates it to a status worthy of our current attention. By taking it more seriously than it was meant to be taken I am liable to be considered a bully beating a straw-man.

Graphic design, for Lavin, seems to refer to any creative endeavor which combines words and images. Elsewhere in her writing she subscribes to a more traditional definition of design but in her treatment of women and design she loosens that definition substantially. And I’m not sure we can be satisfied with this loose definition of design. The main problem it poses is also bound up with the ideology at work in Lavin’s list. She explicitly praises “self-generated” work with an “authorial voice”, particularly work that prioritizes “personal, political, or social agendas”. These are her values. Martha Scotfeld’s survey findings were thus pleasantly convenient. Women designers make these kinds of works more often than men do, so the survey says.

Author-ity is a cultural construction.

Lavin complicates the notion of authorial voice later in her piece. “Since virtually all [design] work is for a client,” she says, “… the concept of a lone creator so popular in the art world rarely applies.” Thus her notion of “authorial voice”, which accounts for the unique stamp of a particular design sensibility even when the design might have been produced by a team of designers and at the behest of a client (110). This approach is similar to Roland Barthes’ statements about authorship in his famous essay “The Death of the Author.”

To my mind, Lavin’s admission that virtually all design work is client-driven undermines her interest in and emphasis on “self-generated” or personal design work. Why, in short, focus so much attention on self-generated or personal work if that work represents only an almost very small portion of the design that is produced?

Lavin’s complication of the notion of authorial voice also challenges this focus on personal work. Why focus on personal work if the very notion of authorship is inappropriate to the work under consideration?

Barbara Kruger is among the most problematic figures included in Lavin’s portfolio, so we can take her inclusion and her work as an example.

Is Barbara Kruger a designer? She works with images and texts. But her work is rarely client-driven, particularly in the strong sense of this phrase, which claims that the work must communicate a client-generated message to an intended target audience. Kruger’s work poses banal pseudo-philosophical questions in a flat and potentially ironic manner intended as a pastiche of media culture. Her project reached its apotheosis, I think, when “I am because I shop” was printed on shopping bags, her activism effortlessly integrated into the spectacle. So much for cultural critique, for political or social messaging.

Is the work personal? Not really, not in the expressive sense of this term. But does it have a strong “authorial voice”? Yes, in that Kruger developed an highly characteristic, high impact but low fi style. Anyone, in other words, could make a Kruger by aping her style.

Art in service is not art at all.

All of this in mind, I am personally more comfortable calling Barbara Kruger an artist, or better yet a “postartist”, than calling her a designer, feminist or otherwise. Her art is, of course and in its way, art in the service of an idea. And art in service, according to Kant, is not art at all.

Yet graphic design is almost always in service to something. It is by nature client driven. Its purpose is to convey a client message to an intended target audience. Kantian categories don’t seem to apply.

Perhaps Kruger is a designer after all. But if so, she is an a-typical one and not particular good (because her work is almost completely opaque). All of this suggests that, to the extent that design critics, like Maud Lavin, focus their attention on self-generated or personal work, they are not really focused on design.

What then of feminist design? Feminist design, I think, must be understood as graphic design done for a client who might be described as motivated by feminist concerns. Undoubtedly such design exists, some of it good, some bad.

The crucial question however is whether or not a feminist designer effect can social change by working for a client whose project is itself anti-feminist. If this were in fact possible, design would indeed be a powerful social weapon.

Many factors inhibit such a fantasy from becoming reality. What might, for example, bring such a situation about? Why would an anti-feminist client hire a feminist designer in the first place? If such an occurrence did come to pass, then we might also assume that the client might already be predisposed toward listening to that designer and thus perhaps also to changing the nature of the project. The scenario is pretty far fetched. Clients hire designers they like and trust and designers thrive when working with clients who respect them. The designer-client bond is a communal one.

The confusion surrounding all of these terms – designer, client, community – and around the very nature of design itself – as a specifically material form of communication – suggests that design writing has a long way to go before it understands its object and purpose, in particular as these relate to the history of art.

Put bluntly, the question of feminist design is probably the wrong question to ask about design. By wrong I mean that it is not the most significant question that we might ask and, worse, that it is a misleading question. It is a question that prioritizes the personal, when design is by nature communal, that prioritizes the political – the ideational and the ideological – when design is explicitly material.

The question of feminist design is thus in many ways the opposite of that of écriture féminine. It seeks to reduce design history to another episode in the history of representations, a history that has closed and that for many reasons has been superceded by design itself. The question of feminist design seeks masterpieces, enduring works among the ephemera of design culture. It seeks to replace the gynophobia of the phallogocentric tradition with an equally hegemonic gynophilia.

If their goal is to reverse the existing order, even if that were possible, history would simply repeat itself and return to phallocratrism, where neither women’s sex, their imaginary, nor their language can exist.            Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, 106.

Insofar as design is celebrated as the authoritative creation of a singularly heroic creator, whether male or female, and promoted as a singularly successful vehicle of clear communication, it is representative of the repressive phallogocentric Western tradition.

Fortunately, this celebration has very little to do with design practice. Design practice is, like écriture féminine, always already plural, always already open, always already communal, always already heterogeneous in content and context.

Writing is precisely the very possibility of change, the space that can serve as a springboard for subversive thought, the precursory movement of a transformation of social and cultural structures.             Hélène Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa, 249

We might replace the word “writing” in this quotation with the word design. Design is precisely the very possibility of change, the space that can serve as a springboard for subversive thought, the precursory movement of a transformation of social and cultural structures.

Along these lines and retrospectively, we might reread the history of graphic design as the history of a repressed material culture, a community under erasure, an unconscious history of our culture. Such a history of graphic design has yet to be written. If we continue to fetishize the personal, the political, and the masterwork, it won’t be.

Select Bibliography

Maud Lavin, “Portfolio: Women and Design” in Lavin, Clean New World: Culture, Politics, and Graphic Design (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001).

Jean-François Lyotard, Postmodern Fables (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron, eds. New French Feminisms: An Anthology (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press; New York: Schoken Books, 1980). Cited by author and page number.

Andy Goldsworthy: An Aesthetics of Sustainable Living

Andy Goldsworthy’s work and working methods show us how to live in a sustainable way. His works are not informational or argumentative. They do not seek to sway or persuade; they don’t bully or badger. They demonstrate a way of living, a creative approach to places and things and to the human community that has and continues to shape the places and things of this world.

Slate Arch

As valuable as science and journalism can be, human beings are creatures of heart as well as of mind, and they rarely respond well to rational arguments or even to carefully presented and compelling information. We are unlikely to listen to anyone who tells us what to do until they have shown us what to do first. Pascal claimed that human beings need both reason and that which exceeds reason in order to live. He took that as justification for his faith in an abstract ideal, but I find it equally relevant to Andy Goldsworthy’s works, works that have the power to turn our thoughts back to the essential realities, the things of the world. In the end, rationality is only ever as useful as the myth it serves, and our winded civilization is a civilization in need of a new myth. Andy Goldsworthy’s work interests me because I think it may be part of one.

I could begin by situating Goldsworthy’s work within the Fine Art tradition – situating it, in order words, in relation to site-specific art or process art or performance art or earth art – but I would prefer not to do that. I’d prefer to try to shift the ground of the discussion. I don’t want to talk about Goldsworthy as an art historian or an art critic might, but rather in another way. Toward this end, and as I’ve suggested, I’d like to approach his work as a model and demonstration of sustainable living rooted in his creative relationship with the things of the world.

The creative act in Goldsworthy’s case can, I think, be divided into three phases, which I will call “gathering”, “transformation”, and “dissemination”. Before saying what I mean by these terms, and as a way of approaching them, I will describe Goldsworthy’s work and working methods briefly.

Goldsworthy’s art is, at this point, I think very familiar: from museum and gallery shows, public and private collections, nine or so volumes of photographs and writings, numerous smaller catalogues, and – perhaps best – from Thomas Riedelsheimer’s marvelous, full-length documentary, Rivers and Tides.

Goldsworthy works with things, manipulating objects found in nature, with the occasional aid of very civilized technologies (like cranes or bulldozers), to create works that are hybrid forms in several ways. They are hybrid forms because they mark points of intersection between nature and culture, and they are hybrid forms because they are often animated by several discourses of understanding or evaluation.

Goldsworthy’s stone cairns, for example, are first and foremost stone, and the artist must conduct a kind of dialogue with the stones in order to create them. He speaks of understanding the stone better and better, and he means not only stone in general but the specific types of stone found in a specific place as well as the specific stones used to create an individual cairn. Significantly, stone cairns are not just piles of stones. They reach back into the economic, political, and religious history of places. Stones and piles of stones have long been used – all around the world – to mark property lines and to locate a sacred place. More abstractly, stone cairns are potent and satisfying visual images: symbols. They resemble eggs, seeds, and pine cones, and thus participate in a range of symbol systems at once specific to and in some ways common across distinct cultures.

Goldsworthy’s works are, in general, symbolic without being representational. They are emotional without being expressive. They are personal without being private. They are immediately recognizable as his own, yet they are also so common that in some cases they might pass as natural forms and in others as the remains or reminders of some ancient civilization.

Goldsworthy’s works often locate the intersection of nature and culture: the place where humans dwell. This place is a wild place because it is a place where the culture of human making must submit to the necessities of nature (the laws of physics). But this place is not “the wild”, not nature in a pure sense, and it would be uninteresting to Andy Goldsworthy if it were. Where man is not, nature is barren, according to William Blake, meaning that human beings create the value of the world.

Goldsworthy tries to make at least one work of some kind every day. Some days he can’t. Some days he can make several works in quick succession. The result is a stunning volume and diversity of aesthetic production. The work must be approached as individual pieces but also as a series or perhaps several discontinuous series of works stretching across the artist’s life. Connections and distinctions can be observed at many levels as he makes stone cairns one day, a stone wall the next, ice cairns thereafter, and a clay wall after that. From an art historical point of view, this daily creative practice is almost intolerable in that it yields so much material. How can it all be appreciated? How can it all be catalogued? How can it be preserved? Of course these might be the wrong questions to ask about Goldsworthy’s work, much of which is ephemeral in the first place.

Goldsworthy’s works aren’t meant to last, or rather, more precisely, they aren’t meant to last in the way that our civilization likes things to last. The things themselves do not last. Even stone, as Goldsworthy observes, changes states. It can be a liquid or a solid at different points in the life of the stone. Our civilization and in particular our museums and art speculators would like to see a more reliable promise of stability, of solidity, a more certain promise of persistence. But Goldsworthy works with nature, with the nature of things, to illustrate change. His wooden spires are meant to decay, to rot and collapse, to be consumed by the forest that surrounds them. His cairns crumble with the force of wind and settling soil. His ice sculptures melt. His most ephemeral works include shadow images of himself, images made of frost or rain, that fade in moments. And more ephemeral still: billowing clouds of sand, soil, or snow, thrown in the air, photographed by a friend. The works pass like water in a river.

Modern civilization has of course always had an unstable if not outright hostile relationship to the ephemeral nature of things, and this goes for modern art as well. The Fine Art tradition proposes itself as a secular search for the absolute. In the absence of the sacred, the objects of Fine Art, at least, might persist. Other commodities too cut themselves off from the stream of change: they sit on shelves with the aura of eternity, or at least suspended animation.

Goldsworthy’s works though, don’t, and they won’t. They speak to their own origins, ambitions and ends. A given work by Andy Goldsworthy thus participates in a distinct and distinctly broad range of temporalities or temporal horizons. In doing so his works stand in stark contrast to the modern tradition of the new, the tradition of the now, the modern notion of “making it new”.

Goldsworthy’s works echo moments in the lives of their materials: they account for the nature and history of the stones or leaves or ice. And they evidence Goldsworthy’s knowledge of that history, of those things. As an artist, he is also a geologist and an anthropologist, among many other things.

Though ephemeral, his works may peak – if that is not quite the word – at a certain point, or they may be considered as peaking at a certain point – the cairn is perhaps a peak moment in the life of a stone, for example – but they continue on. The stones do not disappear. They pass on to another phase in the life of the stone.

Goldsworthy digs iron ore from a riverbed, grinds the small stones into a red powder, which he gathers with water into a paste, and returns to the river with a splash captured on film. Which is the most significant moment in the “work”? What exactly is the work? It is in every moment: in gathering the ore, in grinding it into powder, mixing it into paste, throwing it back into the river and even beyond that, in the influence Goldsworthy’s gestures have had on the destiny of that piece of stone.

Gathering, grinding and throwing the ore in this example recalls the terms that I would like to use to describe Goldsworthy’s processes in general: gathering, transformation, dissemination. Goldsworthy takes a kind of responsibility for all three moments. These moments are moments in the life of the stone and they are moments in his life as well. The moment of transformation may be the most satisfying to him as a creator, and the passage from transformation to dissemination may be the most satisfying to his viewers, but none of the moments is indispensible and none of the three takes precedence over the others. In some works, the moment of gathering takes far more time than either of the other phases: his snowballs in summer installation is a good example of this. In other works, the moment of dissemination is most complex and complexly satisfying. Sometimes it takes years, as in the case of the spire he recently erected in the Presidio near where I live: the 200 foot tall tower of trees surrounded by saplings will itself decay over years as the trees grow around and ultimately over it. In the future, the work will be a memorial marked by absence amid presence whereas now it is a presence amid absence. Which of these moments matters most? Which moment is most true to the work?

In the gathering phase of a work, Goldsworthy gets to know a place: its geology, its ecology, its economics, its religious and social history. He works best, he says, in his home place, because he knows it best, and this makes sense and is right. When he travels, he says, he sees differences – differences between his home and the new place, between the new place and other places – but he struggles to see change, the changes that take place slowly over time. And change is the substance of his work. His works mark time, they record change. If he cannot perceive trajectories of change at work in a place, he cannot record that change. This is the challenge he faces when he travels. And this is the challenge we are all facing. How well do we know our home places? The geology and ecology of our places? The history of animal and human interactions within these places? If we don’t really know these things, how can we know what it is to live in a particular place, to grow food there? How can we know what the land will bear? What will last and what will pass away? What I am talking about here is of course a sense of bioregionalism. Sustainable life is life rooted in a place, attendant to the changes that have and will occur in that place. Goldsworthy’s works encourage us to find a place for ourselves, and to dig in.

In the transformation phase, Goldsworthy effects change. He conjures symbols from a site, markings of moments, passages to futurity from the past lives of a place. Though Goldsworthy works with nature, with natural objects, his work is always human work, the work of human hands, the work of culture. He brings objects or colors or shapes into startling juxtaposition. He brings stones, dirt and mud into the museum. He highlights the nature of a place and often the work of nature by creating contradiction: a splash of natural color in an unnatural place, an unlikely arch or object, an unexpected gathering of wood or leaves.

In a sense, Goldsworthy works by folding nature back onto or into itself, rearranges it, makes natural objects of seemingly unnatural things. But they aren’t unnatural, they are only unexpected, or only unexpected there, at that place, in that time: like snowballs in summer.

The revelation of his work is the revelation of what is already there: the secret life of things. If his work is a gift, it is the gift of things: a gift he gives to the things, with the things, for the things. He freely admits that the things give infinitely more than he can. His addition – his specifically human contribution – to the world is one of analysis and application, of extrapolation and extension: he looks at the world, discerns its potential and, in a way, makes the most of it.

I’m not saying, “makes the most of it”, in a sarcastic or ironic way. I mean it. The world of things can be more, with human help. Joel Salatin, proprietor of Polyface farm in Virginia, is talking about the same thing when he observes that grass grows more if a cow eats it. A carefully managed pasture really is more than untended wilderness. Ecosystems exceed themselves when careful, thoughtful management helps them to do so.

The point is obviously not to destroy the material, the things, let alone the ecosystem itself. Transformation effects a change that has a future, a change that reinvests its energies into the stream of life, that adds to that stream.

At the other end of the spectrum, Rush Limbaugh once observed that the best use of a tree is to make a baseball bat. Trees of course create the air we breathe, they process – and thus help clean – the water we drink, they help prevent erosion and provide cover for the diverse creatures of the forest. Habitats are complex and while the pleasure of baseball is simple. Baseball bats do one thing and one thing only. Eventually the game is over and everyone goes home. The game provides a brief suspension of life, a moment isolated from the complex connectivity of the world. Goldsworthy’s works, on the other hand, encourage us to step into the stream of life, to follow the slow course of things, the multiple pasts and myriad futures potential within the objects of the world.

The dissemination phase of his work is its gift. It is the moment Goldsworthy himself lets go. The work – a thing in the world – continues to evolve. Ice melts, clay dries, wood rots, walls wear with the seasons, stones collapse. The tide sweeps some works out to sea, casting driftwood or stones far and wide. Where and when does Goldsworthy’s work really stop? The elements of the work – elements themselves – give and give; they continue to unfold along lines – vectors or trajectories – shaped by Andy Goldsworthy’s hands but free of them as well.

Ecosystems are not discrete systems. They are macro-systems composed of many micro-systems that open onto and feed one another. A rotting tree is food for a forest and a forest feeds a region of the globe. Goldsworthy’s works function in a similar way. Sometimes they actually include trees that rot. But the metaphor is a good model for all of his works. His works aren’t meant to persist but they are meant to last, if lasting means having a permanent effect on the course of the whole of our world, not abstractly, but immanently, radiating out along specific vectors, from the vortex that is the work. Like the effects of eddies in an ocean, which are often too small to be measured large-scale, the effects of his works are only discretely measurable yet cumulative.

The myth of the work – which is its greatest gift, and which I have endeavored to trace – is this model of sustainable living, of gathering, transformation and dissemination, of measured analysis and immanent impact, of total involvement with a place over an extended period of time: past, present, and future. Goldsworthy’s works gather the past and present of a place, shaping it for multiple futures. This is life divested of abstraction, refocused on the objects of the earth itself and on our place on that earth.

To gather is to take stock, it is to dig into a place, to assess its geological, ecological, sociological, religious and economic histories. To transform is to shape these histories, to add something of one’s own time and energy to them and to help them to be more of what they are. Dissemination means letting go, but it entails a recognition of one’s on-going and in a sense endless impact on the world.

Living in the way this model proposes begins by asking questions about the things of our world, the objects that surround us in daily life: where did these things come from? How are we using them? And what will happen to them once we have finished with them? Waste, as William McDonough says, is food. Everything is at once ephemeral and, in another way, endless.