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Andy Goldsworthy’s Landscape Art: Leaning Into the Wind

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By John Duncan Talbird.

In the opening of the new documentary, Leaning Into the Wind, artist Andy Goldsworthy tours a small home in the mountains in Brazil. To Western eyes, the dwelling might seem pre-modern, even decrepit. But to Goldsworthy, all he sees is the handcraft of the residence, the sturdy joists in the ceiling, and especially, the poured mud floor. This tour of a home is juxtaposed with a Goldsworthy commission. We watch as the artist and several assistants use chainsaws to run gashes into a beautiful, fallen tree. Then, with ropes and a crane, they somehow position the tree through a door and into a small enclosure, the branches taking up a dark room. Once inside, they coat the tree in clay. Then in time-lapse photography the tree mud dries and cracks, splinters beautifully, fragmenting elegantly. It’s not explicitly stated in the film, but almost assuredly the tree fell naturally; any who know Goldsworthy’s art will know that he wouldn’t cut down a tree to make an artwork. And that’s probably one of the big innovations in the sixteen years between the release of director-cinematographer Thomas Riedelsheimer’s first documentary on the artist’s work, Rivers and Tides (2001) and the most recent: We have less voiceover.

Goldsworthy’s voice – pleasant, deep, Scottish – is a near-constant presence in the earlier film and it’s understandable. The artist is engaged in making art that is incredibly radical in our contemporary capitalist world, artifacts that are fleeting, made of ice and stacked rocks and twigs, much of it falling apart and melting and running downstream before the day is up, art that resists the marketplace. So it’s understandable that Riedelsheimer would want to include the artist’s point-of-view. But in that film he doesn’t talk about the radical nature of his art. He’s mostly talking about New Age ideas of “flow” and “being with and of nature” and so on. The artist was at the screening of Leaning Into the Wind that I attended and he said that when he and Riedelsheimer began collaborating on this new film about four years ago, he saw it as an opportunity to “fix” everything that was wrong with the earlier film. And then, at some point, he decided that, instead, he was simply continuing the work from Rivers and Tides. I think this later conclusion is right. Although I enjoyed the lesser amount of voiceover, I think I needed that earlier guide to better understand who Goldsworthy is and why he does what he does.

Now that that foundation has been laid in the earlier film, we can just see the art, see it made and see it filmed after it’s made via Riedelsheimer’s graceful rising and swooping cinematography. We watch Goldworthy and his adult daughter and assistant, Holly, create an artwork by setting a bucket of feed in the center of a large sheet of heavy paper or fabric. The sheep track their muddy hooves all over the canvas as they consume the food. This is not just a great metaphor for Goldsworthy’s art (the natural world collaborating with the artist to create, the tension between land and human and beast, the improvisational and random nature of much of his artwork, etc.). This is also a how-to. The artwork, or one very much like it, hangs in Goldworthy’s studio in Rivers and Tides, never commented upon, the camera only picking it up as any other prop in the room. Without directly stating it, the later film is showing us how the work of the earlier film was made.

There are other noteworthy similarities and differences in the new film. In Rivers and Tides, much of the artwork – a twig sculpture hanging from an elm on his property in Scotland, a stack of rocks on a beach – fell apart as the artist made it. We got to see Goldsworthy’s look of frustration even as he narrated about being thankful for being alive. That elm mentioned above, so central to Rivers and Tides, also plays a role in Leaning Into the Wind though, since the previous film, it has fallen across a creek. Still, Goldsworthy uses it as a stage for his art just as in the earlier film. The new film is more concerned with spectacular images than the opposition between success and failure. Riedelsheimer often lets the camera just revel in the artworks accompanied by the soundtrack, created once again by composer and musician Fred Frith. Frith is freer this time around too, less constrained in scoring a “soundtrack” than he is in creating improvisations which, in some ways, gel even better than the more traditional music of the earlier film. Also, in this film, Goldworthy has moved to the city, “painting” a yellow stripe down paved steps with flower petals, using his body as a stamp when it rains, moving away to leave a dry outline which quickly fills with raindrops. One very interesting evolution, only hinted at in the previous film, is the way that Goldsworthy has begun to use his own body as material for the work. He poses for the camera with more yellow flowers than one would think a man capable of holding in his mouth, pauses, and then sprays them upward and out, a shower of solid light. He crawls laboriously through a leafless hedge, moving in slow motion, struggling horizontally with branches going nowhere. And the final image, titles streaming downward: Goldsworthy positioned in the top of a tree like some sort of exotic fruit or demented Christmas tree ornament. He’s far up there, must be seventy-five feet off the ground, and completely still. People drive past on the highway below, not one of them slows to gawk. He has become utterly and completely an element of the landscape.

John Duncan Talbird is the author of the limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have appeared in PloughsharesJuked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, Ambit and elsewhere. He is an English professor at Queensborough Community College.

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