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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.

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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.